Movie Censorship

Government censorship of movies is relatively rare in the United States today, for a number of reasons. First, movies are not often the subject of the kind of heated debates that arise over the content of public libraries and school curricula. In addition, the movie industry has averted governmental action by implementing its own form of voluntary censorship, first through the Hays Code in the early 20th century and today through the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system.

The so-called Hays Code was created by the former Postmaster General Will Hays, who in 1922 became the first head of the industry group that would become the MPAA. It was created in response to increasing efforts to censor movies after Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that movies were not protected by the First Amendment. (Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio)

The Code detailed what content was forbidden, from nudity and references to homosexuality to disrespect for the American flag. (Lewis) Even this level of control was not enough for the Catholic Church, which pressured Hays to appoint a Catholic, Joseph I. Breen, to head the censorship office, now called the Production Code Administration (PCA). The PCA reviewed movie scripts for objectionable content, and its approval was required for a film to be exhibited in most American movie theaters. (Black)

Although state censorship boards continued to exist, and the Catholic (later National) Legion of Decency continued to exert pressure on the movie industry by boycotts and the creation of its own rating system and lists of "condemned" movies, the self-regulation model of the Hays Code allowed the movie business to flourish, even as it limited the creativity of movies as an art form. The Hays Code continued in force until 1966, when the MPAA instituted a ratings system similar to what exists today. (Black)

The Supreme Court acts

In 1951, a decision by New York's censorship board to ban an Italian film led to a landmark Supreme Court case that struck down almost every governmental justification for censorship. "The Miracle," directed by Roberto Rossellini, was condemned by the Catholic Church as "sacrilegious and blasphemous," and the New York State Board of Regents voted to revoke the distributor's license to show the film. (De Grazia and Newman)

The distributor sued, and in United States v. Paramount Pictures, the Supreme Court ruled that a state may not censor a film on the basis of a finding that it is "sacrilegious." The Court overturned its 1915 precedent and ruled that "expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments." (United States v. Paramount Pictures)

The Court left open whether the government could censor movies based on clearly stated obscenity laws, and Hollywood watched closely as the high court worked through a series of obscenity cases, from the Roth case in 1957 to its formulation of the Miller test in 1973. The Court used the Miller test in 1974 to overturn the obscenity conviction of a theater operator in Georgia for showing the film "Carnal Knowledge," starring Jack Nicholson and Candice Bergen. (Jenkins v. Georgia) After Miller, it became more difficult to successfully prosecute film distributors for obscenity, and local governments increasingly turned to zoning restrictions rather than criminal charges to control adult films. (De Grazia and Newman)

Censorship today

Today, attempts at censorship come not from governmental entities but from interest groups that use the threat of boycotts and protests to put pressure on Hollywood to change objectionable content. The protests that attended the premieres of "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Basic Instinct" in the late 1980s and early '90s show that censorial impulses come from both ends of the political spectrum. (Lyons)

In recent years, religion has outpaced sex and violence as a point of contention, and pressure groups are often successful at influencing movie studios concerned above all with the bottom line. In 2004, for example, Twentieth Century Fox waived its option to distribute Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" after allegations of anti-Semitism by the Anti-Defamation League and other groups. ("Fox passes on Gibson's 'The Passion'") In 2007, William A. Donohue of the Catholic League called for a boycott of "The Golden Compass" for its anti-religious themes. (Yonke)

Economic pressure that comes from interest groups and the requirements of the ratings system causes self-censorship among writers, directors and producers who want to get ahead in the movie business, and pressure from corporate parents influences the artistic decisions made by movie studio executives. The Hays Code may be gone, but Hollywood's creativity remains unfree.

-- - Kathy Olson, Journalism and Communication

Works Cited

Black, Gregory D. "Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies" (Cambridge University Press, 1994)

De Grazia, Edward and Roger K. Newman. "Banned Films: Movies, Censors and the First Amendment" (R.R. Bowker Co., 1982)

"Fox passes on Gibson's 'The Passion,'" The Los Angeles Times (August 30, 2003)

Jenkins v. Georgia, 418 U.S. 153 (1974)

Lewis, Jon. "Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry" (New York University Press, 2000)

Lyons, Charles. "The New Censors: Movies and the Culture Wars" (Temple University Press, 1997)

Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915)

Yonke, David. "The 'Golden Compass' points to controversy," The Toledo Blade (November 24, 2007)