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The states generally may regulate the allocation of the burden of proof in their courts, and it is a common procedural device to impose on a the individual the burden of proof, but where the Supreme Court conceives that this device is being applied in a manner tending to cause even a self-imposed restriction of free expression, the Supreme Court will strike down its application.
Appellant, the proprietor of a bookstore, was convicted in a California Municipal Court under the Municipal Code of Los Angeles, Cal., Ordinance § 41.01.1, which made it unlawful for any person to have in his possession any obscene or indecent writing, or book in any place of business where books were sold or kept for sale. The ordinance was construed as imposing a "strict" or "absolute" criminal liability, without requiring any element of scienter, i.e., knowledge by defendant of the contents of the book for the possession of which he was convicted. The appellant's timely objection that if the ordinance were so construed it would be in conflict with the Federal Constitution was rejected. The Appellate Department of the Superior Court for Los Angeles County affirmed.
Could the appellant’s conviction under Municipal Code of Los Angeles, Cal., Ordinance § 41.01.1 be upheld?
The Supreme Court reversed the bookstore owner's conviction. The Supreme Court held that while obscene speech and writings were not protected by the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, that did not authorize any state power to restrict the dissemination of books which were not obscene. The Supreme Court reasoned that the strict liability feature of § 41.01.1 had that effect because it penalized booksellers, even though they had not the slightest notice of the character of the books they sold. Furthermore, by dispensing with any requirement of knowledge of the contents of the book on the part of the bookstore owner, the ordinance imposed a severe limitation on the public's access to constitutionally protected matter because if the bookstore owner were criminally liable without knowledge of the contents, the bookstore owner would have tended to restrict the books he sold to those he had inspected, and thus the state would have imposed a restriction upon the distribution of constitutionally protected as well as obscene literature.