The Miller Test is an American legal test by which a particular item can be evaluated to determine whether or not it is legally considered to be obscene. This test was established by the US Supreme Court and allows other courts in the US to more precisely determine the obscenity of an item. Works that are judged to be obscene are not protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and distribution of such items can result in civil or criminal punishment.
Also known as the Three Prong Obscenity Test, the Miller Test consists of three basic conditions an item must meet to be deemed obscene. These conditions were established in the 1973 decision of the US Supreme Court case Miller v. California and served to define a new way of evaluating the obscenity of an item. Older methods for considering obscenity were often based on vague language and concerns of whether an item had any redeeming qualities.
The first condition of the Miller Test is that the “average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.” This means that the “average person” in a particular community must consider an item to be lascivious or pornographic in nature. The analysis uses “community standards,” which means that an item may be considered obscene in one part of the country, while not being obscene in another state or city.
According to the Miller Test, an obscene item “depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law.” This second condition of the Miller Test means that the content of a particular item must actually be explicit in nature, rather than merely suggestive. The third condition of the Miller Test states that an item is obscene if it also “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” This is similar to previous tests that evaluated obscenity based on whether an item had any redeeming qualities.
In order for a particular item to be deemed legally obscene, it must meet all three conditions of the Miller Test. The first two conditions allow local or community standards to be applied, which has been controversial and the subject of much debate, while the third condition allows for a larger, national evaluation of an item for redeeming qualities. Advocates of greater protection for free speech often argue that the use of terms such as “average person” and “community standards” are vague and allow for too much interpretation in the test. Since the establishment of the Miller Test, however, it has largely stood up to scrutiny and provided protection for literature and artwork that some have challenged as being obscene.