Cover of an undated American edition of Fanny Hill, c. 1910
The 18th century book Fanny Hill has been subject to obscenity trials at various times (image: plate XI: The bathing party; La baignade)

The phrase was used in 1964 by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio.

- I know it when I see it

Former Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court of the United States, in attempting to classify what material constituted exactly "what is obscene," famously wrote, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced ... [b]ut I know it when I see it...."

- Obscenity
Cover of an undated American edition of Fanny Hill, c. 1910

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Jacobellis v. Ohio

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Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), was a United States Supreme Court decision handed down in 1964 involving whether the state of Ohio could, consistent with the First Amendment, ban the showing of the Louis Malle film The Lovers (Les Amants), which the state had deemed obscene.

He wrote, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

Official portrait, 1976

Potter Stewart

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American lawyer and judge who served as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1958 to 1981.

American lawyer and judge who served as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1958 to 1981.

Official portrait, 1976

His concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio popularized the phrase "I know it when I see it."

In the obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), Stewart wrote in his short concurrence that "hard-core pornography" was hard to define, but that "I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

Miller v. California

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Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court modifying its definition of obscenity from that of "utterly without socially redeeming value" to that which lacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value".

In Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart's concurring opinion said that the Court in earlier pornography cases "was faced with the task of trying to define what may be indefinable," and that criminal laws were constitutionally limited to "hard-core pornography," which he did not try to define: "perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."