The Warren Court (1953–69)

Freedom of Expression

Which justice wrote that he couldn’t define obscenity but “I know it when I see it”?

Justice Potter Stewart wrote in a concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964): “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” The movie in question was a French drama film entitled Les Amants (meaning The Lovers), featuring French actress Jeanne Moreau. The phrase became one of the most well-known and oft-cited phrases in modern Supreme Court history. Stewart later regretted that his phrase became so popular, saying: “I think that’s going to be on my tombstone.”

U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, in his famous concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, said he could not define obscenity but “I know it when I see it.” Ed Clark/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

This is a web preview of the "The Handy Supreme Court Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App