Al Goldstein, who died in December at the age of 77, left behind a tangled legacy as a smut peddler, trailblazer, moral degenerate and free speech advocate. In 1968, Goldstein started Screw magazine, the self-proclaimed “sex guide” to the seedy underbelly of New York City. Although less well known than Larry Flynt, the Hustler magazine publisher who in 1988 fought off a libel suit by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in a crucial First Amendment case, Goldstein played a similarly important role in pushing the bounds of what was considered permissible to print and say under the law, and perhaps more importantly, in the court of public opinion. Obscenity has never been the same since.
In 1974, federal prosecutors went after Goldstein for the material he was publishing in Screw. Just the year prior, the Supreme Court had further clarified its definition of obscenity in Miller v. California: material that according to “contemporary community standards … appeals to the prurient interest,” is “patently offensive” and is lacking in “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” What the court meant by “community,” however, was unclear, and the slipperiness of the term allowed federal prosecutors to go forum shopping — meaning they could pick whichever state they felt would be most amenable for a conviction. They picked Kansas.