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At St. John's College, students, guests and faculty take a look at obscenity

Colleges and UniversitiesLiteratureU.S. Supreme CourtArt

St. John's College in Annapolis is known for immersing students in classics of the Western canon. On Friday, the school's evening lecture series will feature a topic that might rankle some modern-day content watchdogs, but would have made Socrates proud: "Is obscenity obsolete?"

That's the topic of a lecture by St. John's tutor William Braithwaite slated for Sept. 20 in the school's Francis Scott Key Auditorium at 8 p.m., with a discussion period to follow in the school's Conversation Room.

Braithwaite, 74, a former trial lawyer who has been part of the St. John's community for 18 years, is anticipating much conversation among students, faculty and guests. The lecture is the third installment of a series on constitutional law, and Braithwaite said he hopes to probe generations of U.S. Supreme Court attempts to define where obscenity fits in the law of the land.

All Friday night lectures at St. John's, 60 College Ave., are free and open to the public.

Braithwaite said that originally obscenity was not considered protected by the free-speech clause of the First Amendment. But in 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it to be part of law and attempted to define obscenity through several legal opinions. At best, the results could be regarded as conflicting and confusing.

"Can a book or picture be obscene 'in itself,' regardless of audience?" Braithwaite said. "What is it that the obscene appeals to? Does a stable political community need obscenity laws?"

Braithwaite said his lecture will cover just about any work that has been, or can be, regarded as obscene — from photos, art exhibits and films to the John Cleland 1749 erotic novel, "Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" — which became the centerpiece of a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on obscenity.

At St. John's, a tranquil but free-spirited liberal arts school where students immerse themselves in works of religious, historical, mathematical, scientific and philosophical origin, a lecture on obscenity seems a bit off character — but also intriguing to students.

St. John's senior Nutchapol Boonparlit, 21, said since his freshman year in high school he has seen how words that once might have been regarded as obscene have become part of the vernacular.

"Back when I was in high school I thought that ... when you use the F-bomb, it was complete hatred," he said. "It felt to me like to me that it was a very strong word that should never, ever, ever be uttered.

Now, he said, "It doesn't seem as horrible as it used to be."

That's among the reasons Boonparlit says he plans to attend the lecture. "I'm interested in the individual aspect, why we find obscenity so ... obscene."

The topic is indeed one that keeps evolving, moving from books and photos to video games and music.

Braithwaite said he'll probe the appeal of works with hearty doses of violence and sex, and will ask his audience to consider, "What appetite in us is being fed by looking at those things?"

"The heart of my lecture is going to be about trying to work out a definition of obscenity. What kind of things do we want before our eyes [and] in the public spaces of our community?

"I happen to think that probably almost everybody believes there should be some restraints," he said. "The difference — and the political friction — comes with what things should be restrained, who should decide what things should be restrained and who should decide how much they should be restrained."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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