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What Are Community Standards?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2014
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Community standards can be precise or imprecise notions that govern people’s ideas about what is acceptable behavior within a specific community. Community, itself, could refer to a small town, a state, a university campus, a group of Internet users that join a specific website or other defined collections of people. Some standards are written down clearly and others are reasonably inferred. The term may have greater specificity in legal settings where it refers to the average person’s judgment on what items, such as proposed works of art, stay within the bounds of decency or violate what the average person thinks of as decent or appropriate. In this sense, either the behavior or works of others can be judged in court, through jury deliberations, as residing within or without the limits of the average person’s moral judgment on decency.

The first definition of community standards exists in various forms within any grouping of people. Websites with any social networking function typically have a list of standards they expect users to follow, and they may expel users who don’t behave within standards. Schools define what they expect in a community too, but these definitions usually only go so far. Even when laws govern how community members are to behave, there are gray areas that go undefined, where it’s expected that people will reasonably infer basic standards on how to behave.

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If definitions of unwritten community standards differ and conflict occurs, people may go to court to get judgment on which behaviors are appropriate. Court rulings may establish new laws and add to the sum total of standards that exist. Outside of the courts, other communities might add additional guidelines that help to resolve gray area issues.

In legal settings, the most common use of the term community standards is to evaluate an artistic output to determine if it violates average definitions of decency. Several important legal cases have established precedent for deciding if any form of art that touches on sexual matters is indecent or pornographic. In the US, a landmark case in this area was the 1957 Roth v. United States, which put forth that obscenity was determined most by application of community standards by the individuals or, rather, what the average individual would think was obscene. Another case of this nature was the 1970s Miller v. California, which expands on Roth’s definition.

It has been stated that it’s very difficult to judge such cases because the definition of what is obscene truly varies as to individuals, and people can belong to different communities concurrently. A resident of a particular state might be an avid Internet user or TV viewer whose definition of obscenity falls outside the bounds of community. It’s challenging to construct the “average” person of a smaller area when so many people belong to global communities of different sorts, and conversely, certain areas may be cut off with extremely rigid community standards that would not apply elsewhere, but that create especially harsh judgments.

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