Until the late 1950s, many cities and states in the U.S. had a local film regulatory commission. These censorship boards would see a film before it was released in that area, and then grant a license to movie theatres that would allow them to show the picture. This was a relatively easy thing to regulate since, unlike today, movies usually opened first in New York and Los Angeles and then spread across the country very slowly. The massive nationwide openings that we see today wouldn’t come around until the 1980s.
Not only did the movie studios have to worry about following the rules set by the draconian Production Code and possible repercussions from the Catholic Legion of Decency, but even if their films passed these two organizations, the local censorship boards could still ban them. These boards acted as a quasi-governmental agency, showing a banned film could result in fines and jail time, but their standards of what could be shown was not based on any sort of legislation or legal definition of obscenity, just on the whim of the board members. Many films were thrown under the blanket of being “immoral” or “sacrilegious” and were never heard from again. The city of Chicago banned Anatomy of a Murder “because it found the use of the words ‘rape’ and ‘contraceptive’ to be objectionable” and The Great Dictator “out of deference to the city’s large German population.” Memphis banned Curley because it “contained scenes of white and Negro children in school together.” The film version of Carmen was condemned in Ohio “because girls smoked cigarettes in public” and in Pennsylvania because of “the duration of a kiss.”
All of this was allowed thanks to the 1915 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, which declared that films were a business enterprise and thus did not deserve First Amendment protection.
In 1952, the Italian film The Miracle was released in New York. The movie was an intensely focused, gritty parable of a simpleminded peasant woman who believes she has been impregnated by her favorite saint. Right after the film’s release a campaign of protest began. It cumulated in a fiery condemnation of the film by New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman that was read at all masses in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. New York’s censors revoked the film’s permit on grounds of sacrilege. The distributor, Joseph Burstyn, sued, and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.
The court found that:
Expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
(a) It cannot be doubted that motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas. Their importance as an organ of public opinion is not lessened by the fact that they are designed to entertain as well as to inform.
(b) That the production, distribution and exhibition of motion pictures is a large-scale business conducted for private profit does not prevent motion pictures from being a form of expression whose liberty is safeguarded by the First Amendment.
(c) Even if it be assumed that motion pictures possess a greater capacity for evil, particularly among the youth of a community, than other modes of expression, it does not follow that they are not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment or may be subjected to substantially unbridled censorship.
(d) To the extent that language in the opinion in Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Comm'n, 236 U.S. 230, is out of harmony with the views here set forth, it is no longer adhered to.
It cannot be doubted that motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas. They may affect public attitudes and behavior in a variety of ways, ranging from direct espousal of a political or social doctrine to the subtle shaping of thought which characterizes all artistic expression. The importance of motion pictures as an organ of public opinion is not lessened by the fact that they are designed to entertain as well as to inform. As was said in Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507, 510 (1948):
"The line between the informing and the entertaining is too elusive for the protection of that basic right (of a free press). Everyone is familiar with instances of propaganda through fiction. What is one man's amusement, teaches another's doctrine."
It is urged that motion pictures do not fall within the First Amendment's aegis because their production, distribution, and exhibition is a large-scale business conducted for private profit. We cannot agree. That books, newspapers, and magazines are published and sold for profit does not prevent them from being a form of expression whose liberty is safeguarded by the First Amendment. We fail to see why operation for profit should have any different effect in the case of motion pictures.
The Court overturned the Mutual Film Corp. decision and found that films do deserve First Amendment protection. They also found that the regulations set down by the censorship board were overly broad and acted as prior restraint. One more obstacle to the free expression of ideas had been removed. This decision helped to begin the decline of the Production Code and the eventual creation of the MPAA ratings system.