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April 25, 2009

Supreme Court Strikes Down Sutton Guitar Solo As Pornographic, Obscene

The court decision in U.S. v. Sutton marks a historic broadening of the definition of pornographic expression.

The decision against Sutton cited his solo's "undeniable appeal to man’s basest instincts”, stating that the average listener feels “soiled, depleted, and deeply ashamed at having enjoyed it."

WASHINGTON, DC — The Roberts Court today ruled against former Kentucky Thunder guitarist Bryan Sutton, declaring his extended solo on “Get Up, John” from Merlefest 1998 to be obscene and gratuitous to an extent not protected by constitutional First Amendment free speech provisions.

The 6-3 decision ended a bitter and very prolonged legal battle between Sutton and the United States Justice Department. It also marked an important step in the high court’s efforts to more broadly define pornographic expression, a historically vague and problematic legal issue.

Over the past several years, federal courts have steadily moved toward a more inclusive definition of obscenity, and the landmark ruling in United States v. Sutton is notable for considering instrumental music as pornography for the first time ever.

According to the majority decision, Sutton’s performance displayed “striking nonconformance with accepted standards of morality,” and the flagrant solo “clearly aimed to incite lust in the average person by appealing to prurient interests rather than serious artistic, political or scientific ones.”

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, shown here in 1999, perform the controversial song “Get Up, John”, featuring an obscene extended solo by Sutton.

In a closed-door session, the nine justices reviewed audio recordings of the solo along with video footage.

Justice Roberts, writing for the court, condemned the music’s “undeniable appeal to man’s basest instincts” and he stated that it left the average person feeling “soiled, depleted, and deeply ashamed for having enjoyed it.”

Interestingly, in cases involving live performance, the law typically applies an extremely stringent de minimis standard, and legal scholars agree that the live, public nature of Sutton’s activities did contribute to their being defined as pornographic.

Justice Ginsberg, in her dissenting opinion, eloquently and passionately warned of the dangers inherent what she called “such an arbitrary broadening of restrictions on the free speech.”

And the American Civil Liberties Union has already issued a strongly worded statement criticizing the decision as unduly restrictive of fundamental American freedoms.

Sutton himself, while reportedly dismayed with the court’s decision, has long since matured into a family man whose more restrained playing now rarely reaches the standard established by the court.

But a statement issued by Sutton’s primary attorney did warn young guitarists to limit their own excesses rather than face censorship and even possibly prison time.

Meanwhile, some expressed concerns about the decision’s implications for the country as a whole.

“OK, sure, that solo is way over the top, but more and more often it seems like the Supreme Court is just totally detached from all reality in this country,” said Earl Merrill, a law student from Boston.


3 Responses to “Supreme Court Strikes Down Sutton Guitar Solo As Pornographic, Obscene”

  1. ???? on June 29th, 2013 1:14 pm


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  2. Joshua Brand on April 27th, 2009 12:32 pm

    Justice Scalia (in typical lone-wolf fashion) filed a separate concurring opinion where he offhandedly commented on Sutton’s disgraceful departure from traditional bluegrass instrumental values. “It shocks the conscience that Mr. Sutton would try to argue that this graphic display is within the purview of First Amendment protection,” Justice Scalia went on to quip. “The Founding Fathers [of Bluegrass] never intended to promote such gaudy displays, and I’ll be damned if I let ever-expansive court doctrine encourage such filth.”

  3. Topics about Guitar » Supreme Court Strikes Down Sutton Guitar Solo As Pornographic,… on April 25th, 2009 11:15 am

    […] Michigan Redneck II placed an observative post today on Supreme Court Strikes Down Sutton Guitar Solo As Pornographic,…Here’s a quick excerpt[caption id="attachment_1174" align="alignleft" width="290" caption="The decision against Sutton cited his solo’s "undeniable appeal to man’s […]

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