Hicklin test  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Hicklin test is a legal concept stemming from the English case Hicklin v. Regina (1868), LR 3 QB 360, in English Common Law. Put simply, it states that a legislature can outlaw anything that, "depraves and corrupts those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort might fall." (i.e. children)

The test asks "whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences." If yes, then such was declared to be obsence. Also, the Hicklin Rule looked at the content in question not as a whole, but only in part. In other words, it did not considered the questionable material in relation to whole content.

The Hicklin Rule would influence United States obscenity law until Roth V. United States where it would be forever put to bed by the courts.


One of the first formal attempts to restrict obscenity was the Obscene Publications Act 1857, also known as the Lord Campbell’s Act. The Act prohibited sending obscene literature through the Post Office in the United States. This attack was under continuous scrutiny because people believed that it caused authors to promote a false image of society and that it diminished the values of literature. The one thing that Lord Campbell’s Act censored anything that was even remotely indecent.

The Hicklin Rule was named after Benjamin Hicklin, a recorder in London following the Regina v. Hicklin court case in 1868. This case was brought against Henry Scott because he had created an offensive anti-Catholic booklet called “The Confessional Unmasked.” The consequence of this hearing was a definition of what was considered illegally obscene at the time: "the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences [such as small children], and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall." But of course the wealthy did not include themsleves in this catogory, becuase they felt that they would not be corrupted.

Hicklin allowed for passages to be judged when taken out of context, wherein if one small portion of a work was deemed obscene, the entire work would be outlawed. He also condoned the use of search warrants in the event of suspected retail or circulation of obscene materials.

This English law was soon adopted by the United States and was enforced by Anthony Comstock, a special agent of the United States Post Office. In 1873, Comstock proposed that the Hicklin Rule be extended to prohibit “any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.” This became known as the Comstock Law. Although this law led to several court hearings, the outcome was usually based on the Hicklin definition of obscenity.

Progression of the Hicklin Test in the United States

The Hicklin Rule was utilized up until the 1950, when it was eventually abandoned for the the new test under Roth V. United States. Two major court cases during the 1930s led to this final decision. The first of these cases involved Mary Ware Dennet, a birth control activist, and her booklet on sex education. The case against Dennet was thrown out after the agreement that sex education is acceptable when presented in a decent way. The second case involved James Joyce’s book Ulysses, which led to an obscenity case after it was forbidden to pass through the U.S. Customs. It was decided that—as a whole—Joyce’s book was not obscene.

The Hicklin test was superseded in the 1957 case Roth v. United States, which answered the question about First Amendment protection of obscenity. Justice William Brennan claimed that Broadcast content of a sexual nature taken as a whole would appeal to the prurient interest of the average person. (can't forget to mention that) This was based on contemporary community standards and also if the material was without redeeming social value would be considered indecent. REF: . John Watkins, Media and the Law.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Hicklin test" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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