Society is dependent upon government to maintain order. Without government, society would easily crumble into anarchy; however, there remains a question about how much governmental interference is necessary in issues of free speech in the United States. The United States Constitution stipulates that every American citizen has the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but the Supreme Court has ruled that these rights are not absolute. In the same way that an individual does not have the right to falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater, so too is that individual restricted when it comes to obscene or potentially obscene materials.
Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled that the government has the right to moderate and control obscene materials, the definition of “obscenity” has been varied and flexible over the years. Of course, in the United States, the legal system is derived from the British Common Law, but we have evolved greatly since then; no longer should we be held accountable to old-style, Puritan standards of behavior. As the country has evolved through and past British rule, so too should the legal system evolve into something more suited to the free republic that we call home.
The freedom of speech and expression is one of the greatest freedoms that America enjoys. Every American is free to think his or her own thoughts, and to be the master of his or her own destiny. By banning books or other materials like Lady Chatterley’s Lover-- a novel that has been, by and large, accepted by the literary community as a work of great importance-- we are narrowing the scope of the American imagination ever so slightly. With every movement we make against the freedom of the American citizen to associate with whatever ideas, thoughts, or materials that he or she wishes to, we are narrowing the future of the American imagination as a whole.
The Supreme Court of the United States has stated that obscene materials can be restricted. The Supreme Court of the United States has given us a test for whether or not a work should be considered obscene: the Roth test defines obscene material as material exists only to arouse prurient interest in the consumer. Is Lady Chatterley’s Lover completely devoid of artistic merit, to the point which it should be considered obscene and banned from polite, everyday society? One could argue that it should be-- indeed, the entire premise of the novel is based upon the idea of an upper-class lady taking a lover.
However, many experts in the field of literary critique have stated that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is truly a novel of artistic merit. The purpose of the sexual encounters in the novel are not merely there to “arouse prurient interest;” rather, they exist to underscore and highlight a major theme of the novel, the unfair dominance of the intellectual class over the working classes, and the importance of integrating both the physical and the mental into one’s everyday existence. Indeed, Lawrence even writes: “obscenity only comes in when the mind despises and fears the body, and the body hates and resists the mind,” indicating that the purpose of his text was to examine the intricate relationship between the mental and physical acts of love, not to create pornographic work.
Even without these high literary aspirations, there are problems with the test that the Supreme Court has set forth in Roth. The Supreme Court insinuates that community standards should hold sway when considering whether or not something is obscene; however, community standards can change across county lines, and they most certainly vary widely throughout the United States. Lady Chatterley’s Lover may be considered obscene in some parts of the United States, but not obscene in others; what is truly obscene is governmental attempts to ban a novel that has literary merit based upon the fact that the novel contains some sexual content. The sexual content in the book exists to further both the plot and the theme of the novel: the intersection and difference between love that exists in the mind and physical love.
The fact that Lady Chatterley’s Lover contains a vast amount of literary value and does not exist entirely for the prurient interest exempts it from the test set forth in Roth. The Roth test is problematic and overarchingly broad; to truly narrow down the Constitutional definition of obscenity, we must examine what truly makes a work obscene, rather than labeling anything with sexual content-- even if that sexual content is somewhat shocking-- obscene.
Allowing for pieces with redeeming literary value to be exempt from the obscenity rules set forth by the Supreme Court is not only logical, it is necessary. Without this allowance, works that add significant value to the American imagination can easily be ignored and forgotten; ideas that are embedded in texts that have sexual content will be lost to the American public. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence writes: “In the short summer night she learned so much. She would have thought a woman would have died of shame She felt, now, she had come to the real bedrock of her nature, and was essentially shameless. She was her sensual self, naked and unashamedThat was how oneself really was! There was nothing left to disguise or be ashamed of. She shared her ultimate nakedness with a man, another being” (Lawrence). If Lawrence were indeed trying to write a novel with the sole purpose of arousing prurient interest in his audience, there would be no depth to the characters within the novel, and no reflection from the characters carrying out the acts.
Lawrence, D. H, Michael Squires and D. H Lawrence. Lady Chatterley's lover. London: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.
Robinson, Geoffrey. "The trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover." The Guardian, October 22. 2010: Print.
"Lady Chatterley's Lover Trial Papers: DM1679." University of Bristol, 2013. Web. 7 Oct 2013. <http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/resources/specialcollections/archives/penguin/chatterley.html>.