Repository for the projects of Michael McVey, filmmaker.

Freedom of Speech and the Movies: Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, from Skiffleboom.com

Michael McVey
Introduction to Mass Media – Prof. Douglas Pastel
March 30, 2010 – Bunker Hill Community College

Freedom of Speech Supreme Court Case

Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson

In 1952, the Supreme Court ruled against the Commissioner of Education of New York’s censorship of a “sacrilegious,” deeming the censorship as a first amendment violation. New York movie distributor Joseph Burstyn attempted to release a controversial Italian film labeled as “anti-catholic.” While critically praised, the Italian short film “The Miracle” was met with animosity from a morally guarded public. There were several protests worldwide, which condemned the film as blasphemy. Under pressure from a vocal public, the New York State Board of Regents, acting through the Commissioner of Education, revoked the film’s license under the pretense of “sacrilege.”

Written by and starring Federico Fellini, "The Miracle" was at the center of the landmark Supreme Court decision that changed the role of censorship in American film.

Burstyn appealed the Commissioner’s actions to the New York, and ultimately, the Supreme Court. He argued that the decision was in violation of the First Amendment. Film, Burstyn’s lawyers argued, is an artistic medium, not just a business, whose expression is protected by the Constitution. Labeling the film as “sacrilegious” was irrelevant in this context — if film is expression that does not infringe on the constitutional rights of others, than its content is guaranteed protection. Under the same amendment, the New York State government’s decision to censor for religious content further violates the separation of church and state. The term sacrilege is vague and could be used as an umbrella term for further free speech restriction.

The Supreme Court’s decision helped define what film meant to 20th century American culture. Film was recognized as an artistic medium and given the same rights as any other form of expression. The decision was a landmark case, weakening censorship and expanding the subject matter of films:

“Though the Constitution does not require absolute freedom to exhibit every motion picture of every kind at all times and all places, there is no justification in this case for making an exception to the basic principles of freedom of expression previously announced by this Court with respect to other forms of expression.”

Despite the public outcry for moral decency, the nine Justices of the Vinson Court unanimously sided with Burstyn, reversing the judgment of the New York Court of Appeals.

The Vinson Court - Front row, left to right: Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, Fred Vinson, Stanley Reed, and William O. Douglas. Back row: Tom Clark, Robert Jackson, Harold Burton, and Sherman Minton.

This decision helped to usher in a new area of filmic exploration (as well exploitation). With the United States government supporting the idea that film is expression, more and more filmmakers began exploring taboo subject matters. Within two decades, American film had overcome many of the moral censorships imposed in the 1930’s, and was free to explore themes and ideas with the pubic. As times and attitudes have changed over the generations, film remains a relative constant — a window into bygone eras of morality.

Censorship imposed prior to this decision forced creative solutions to thematically limited material. For instance, when dealing with themes like non-marital intercourse, homosexuality, politics, race, or religion, filmmakers had to circumvent directness with metaphor, innuendo, and symbolism. These restrictions forced artists to explore alternative methods to incorporate taboo themes, furthering cinematic language.

However, censorship ultimately inhibits the artist from expressing ideas they deem truthful. By inhibiting expression, the government does a great disservice to the public’s natural liberties. The public’s relative morality is not as important as the public’s ability to share ideas, including the ability to discuss what constitutes morality.

Read about Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson on Wikipedia.

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