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236 U.S. 230

In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation shocked and titilated audiences with it’s scenes of racial strife and deification of the Ku Klux Klan. The film became a lightning rod for picketers and was subject to numerous bannings and lawsuits. At the time of the film’s release there was no MPAA, no Hays code, no way to rate the content of a film. Censorship boards at the state or local level did most film regulation, banning films that they deemed “innapropriate.” One of the many places where The Birth of a Nation was banned was in the state of Ohio. Mutual Film Corporation, the company that was handling distribution for the film in Ohio, sued the state claiming that having a state censorship board that works from it’s own self-defined standards is a violation of the due process clause and of the First Amendment. The case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court.

The following paragraph essentially sums up the Court’s opinion:

It seems not to have occurred to anybody in the cited cases that freedom of opinion was repressed in the exertion of the power which was illustrated. The rights of property were only considered as involved. It cannot be put out of view that the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit, like other spectacles, not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion. They are mere representations of events, of ideas and sentiments published and known; vivid, useful, and entertaining, no doubt, but, as we have said, capable of evil, having power for it, the greater because of their attractiveness and manner of exhibition. It was this capability and power, and it may be in experience of them, that induced the state of Ohio, in addition to prescribing penalties for immoral exhibitions, as it does in its Criminal Code, to require censorship before exhibition, as it does by the act under review. We cannot regard this as beyond the power of government.

The Court ruled that films are a solely a business enterprise and thus did not earn the same types of protection that books and other types of speech recieved. The Court also reluctantly admitted that movies could convey ideas, but since these ideas might be immoral or appeal to the prurient interest of moviegoers, it was the job of the state to watch out for the public welfare by using censorship boards. The sad thing about many of censorship cases I have read is that so many of them rely on the government’s need to “protect” it’s citizens, including adults, from what it considers to be immoral ideas.

The film review boards remained in control in many cities and states until the early 1950s. The Supreme Court decision rendered in this case was eventually overturned in a 1952 case known as Burstyn v. Wilson, and films were finally accorded full constitutional protection.

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