Imagine A Community: Obscenity’s History and Moderating Speech Online

Kendra Albert

Far before online platforms tried to imagine communities, the United States Supreme Court had to decide on how much their standards mattered. In this essay, Kendra Albert walks through the history of obscenity’s community standards doctrine, arguing that the Supreme Court’s debates and disagreements about how to regulate speech in that context presage more modern conversations over content moderation online. They sketch the community standards doctrine’s history, from the dozens of cases of the 1950s-70s to how networked technologies from 1989 to the early 2000s exacerbated earlier debates about which community’s standards matter, and how they should be applied. Albert then explains how shadow regulation by payment providers has supplanted the legal rules entirely, replacing theoretical community norms with corporate multinational risk, a move that parallels broader shifts in online speech.