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United States v. Kilbride: Ninth Circuit Adopts National Obscenity Standard in Adult Website Spam Case

Commentary First Amendment Telecommunications

United States v. Kilbride, No. 07-10528 (9th Cir. Oct. 28, 2009)


The Ninth Circuit has affirmed the District Court for the District of Arizona, which had convicted and sentenced defendants Jeffery Kilbride and James Schaffer of transporting obscene materials for sale.

The Ninth Circuit held that a national community standard “must be applied in regulating obscene speech on the Internet, including obscenity disseminated via email.” United States v. Kilbride, No. 07-10528 at 14492 (9th Cir. Oct. 28, 2009).  Defendant Internet spammers Kilbride and Schaffer had appealed their convictions for interstate transportation for sale of obscene material in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1462 and 1465. Judge Fletcher of the 9th Circuit examined the opinions of the fragmented Justices in the Supreme Court's opinion in Ashcroft v. ACLU for guidance in reaching his conclusion that a national community standard would not pose the constitutional concerns that a local community standard would. Ashcroft v. ACLU, 535 U.S. 564 (2002)

Eric Goldman provides an overview of the case. Orin Kerr, of The Volokh Conspiracy, criticizes the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning in the case. Kerr argues that the Ninth Circuit should have followed the precedent set in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), wherein local “contemporary community standards” were applied.

Although the Ninth Circuit agreed with the defendants’ assertion that the district court erred in its jury instruction on the obscenity community standard, the court found that it was not a plain error and did not require reversal. The court reached its holding based on  Ashcroft, which found the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) unconstitutional because it was based partly on community standards to identify material that was harmful to children.

Defendants Kilbride and Schaffer operated a spamming business through Ganymede Marketing, a Mauritian company with servers operating in the Netherlands. Two images from the defendants’ sexually explicit emails lead to the obscenity charges. Kilbride and Schaffer were sentenced to 78 and 63 months respectively. On appeal, defendants challenged the District Court’s application of a contemporary community standard to email communications under Hamling v. United States, 418 U.S. 87 (1974), because it would subject the defendants to the least tolerant community standard in the country. The government challenged defendants’ argument by citing a prior case in the district, United States v. Dhingra, 371 F.3d 557 (9th Cir. 2004), in which the Ninth Circuit did not foreclose a local community standard where a crime occurred over the Internet. The Ninth Circuit distinguished Dhingra noting that it does not apply to a federal law that regulates speech.

Rather than applying Hamling, the Ninth Circuit followed Ashcroft. The Ashcroft case addressed the constitutionality of the COPA, which regulated material harmful to minors. The opinion of the Court in Ashcroft did not find it significant that Internet communications were not focused to a particular area and rejected the national community standard approach. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that the view of the Court was contrary to defendants’ argument but noted that the opinion was not joined by a majority of the court.The Ninth Circuit found support for its conclusion that a national obscenity standard should be applied by examining the multiple concurrences and dissent of the other Justices in Ashcroft. Judge Fletcher noted that six Justices raised constitutional concerns over the application of a local community standard for defining obscenity in Internet cases.

This case represents a departure from the local community standard that had been applied following Miller and goes against the reasoning of the opinion of the Court in Ashcroft, but applies what some believe to be the practical reasoning necessary for balancing Internet communications, free speech, and obscenity concerns. Looking forward, OneNewsNow provides a brief opinion on how the Ninth Circuit’s decision may impact defenses raised by attorneys.