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Video Software Dealers Association v. Webster

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Citation Edit

Video Software Dealers Ass’n v. Webster, 968 F.2d 684 (8th Cir. 1992) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

This case is a pre-enforcement challenge to the constitutionality of a Missouri statute that prohibited the sale or rental of videos containing violence to minors and requiring dealers to display or maintain such videos in separate areas within their stores. Those challenging the statute represented three groups: (1) associations whose members rent or sell videos to the public; (2) the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) — whose members include producers and distributors of films that are eventually released on videos; and (3) owners and operators of two Missouri video retail stores, on behalf of a class of all retailers and distributors of videos in Missouri.

The challenged part of the statute provides:

Video cassettes or other video reproduction devices, or the jackets, cases or coverings of such video reproduction devices shall be displayed or maintained in a separate area within the stores.

The statute applied to videos which applying contemporary community standards, the average adult person would find

(1) . . . [has] a tendency to cater or appeal to morbid interests in violence for persons under the age of seventeen, (2) . . . depicts violence in a way which is patently offensive with respect to what is suitable for persons under the age of seventeen, and (3) . . . lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for persons under the age of seventeen.

District Court Proceedings Edit

The district court declared the statute unconstitutional on its face and permanently enjoined the statute's enforcement. The court found that the statute was not narrowly tailored to promote a compelling state interest and it imposed strict liability. State officials empowered to enforce the statute appealed.

Appellate Court Proceedings Edit

The appellate court struck down the statute. The court, agreeing with the district court, found that the statute was not narrowly tailored to promote a compelling state interest, was unconstitutionally vague, and unconstitutionally imposed strict liability. The court reasoned that although obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment and expression that is not obscene for adults may be obscene for children, videos depicting violence is not obscene for either minors or adults and gets constitutional protection as free speech.

The court noted that the statute aims to regulate speech based on its content — "slasher" videos described as "blood and gore movies" displaying "the most bestial and graphic acts of violence imaginable" such as "excessive scenes of murder, rape, sadomasochistic sex, autopsies, mutilations, Satanism, and assorted perversions." More specifically, Missouri claimed to be regulating violence that exhibit characteristic and is graphically violence. Thus, the court held that the statute had to be narrowly tailored to get constitutional protection. The court reasoned that there was no narrow tailoring because there is no clarification regarding the type of videos the statute is aimed to regulate or a definition of the term "slasher." As drawn, the statute covered all violence and violated the First Amendment on its face.

Further, the court held that the statute is vague. The court reasoned that regardless of the fact that the Missouri legislature claimed that it intended to protect children, the text of the statute was vague. The court explained that without a definition of "violence," the statute "lacks any 'narrowly drawn, reasonable and definite standard' identifying the expression that is subject to the statute's restriction." Moreover, the statute prohibits any video that is “offensive” containing any form of violence. Therefore, the court held that the vagueness standard set forth in precedent (the Miller test) cannot be met because a person of common intelligence would have to guess the meaning of the statute.

The court also found the statute unconstitutionally imposes strict liability because the statute imposing criminal liability for dissemination of unprotected speech must contain a knowledge element which is missing here. The court held that any statute chilling "the exercise of the First Amendment rights must contain a knowledge element." The court further rejected Missouri's suggestion to narrow the statute, holding that it had no authority to "impose a narrowing construction."

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