to The History of American Film: Primary Sources
Joseph Burstyn, Inc., v. Wilson, Commissioner of Education of
et al. (1952)
landmark decision secured First Amendment protections of freedom
of expression to the movies.
The issue here is the constitutionality, under the First and Fourteenth
Amendments, of a New York statute which permits the banning of
motion picture films on the ground that they are "sacrilegious"....
Appellant is a corporation engaged in the business of distributing
motion pictures. It owns the exclusive rights to distribute throughout
the United States a film produced in Italy entitled "The
Miracle." On November 30, 1950, the motion picture division
of the New York education department...issued...a license authorizing
exhibition of "The Miracle," with English subtitles....
The New York State Board of Regents, which by statute is made
the head of the education department, received "hundreds
of letters, telegrams, post cards, affidavits, and other communications"
both protesting against and defending the public exhibition of
"The Miracle." The Chancellor of the Board of Regents
requested three members of the Board to view the picture and to
make a report to the entire Board. After viewing the film, this
committee reported...that in its opinion there was basis for the
claim that the picture was "sacrilegious"....On February
16, 1951, the Regents, after viewing "The Miracle,"
determined that it was "sacrilegious" and...ordered
the Commissioner of Education to rescind appellant's license to
exhibit the picture....
After the Mutual decision , the present case the first to
present squarely to us the question of whether motion pictures
are within the ambit of protection which the First Amendment,
through the Fourteenth, secures to any form of "speech"
or "the press."
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 1948]...
line between the informing and the entertaining is too elusive
for the protection of that basic right [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.
It is further urged that motion pictures possess a greater capacity
for evil, particularly among the youth of a community, than other
modes of expression. Even if one were to accept this hypothesis,
it does not follow that motion pictures should be disqualified
from First Amendment protection. If there be capacity for evil
it may be relevant in determining the permissible scope of community
control, but it does not authorize substantially unbridled censorship
such as we have here....
It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress
real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine,
whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures.
Since the term "sacrilegious" is the sole standard under
attack here, it is not necessary for us to decide, for example,
whether a state may censor motion pictures under a clearly drawn
statute designed and applied to prevent the showing of obscene
films. That is a very different question from the one now before
us. We hold only that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments
a state may not ban a film on the basis of a censor's conclusion
that it is "sacrilegious."