Since the beginnings of film production the extent of censorship on motion pictures has been debated. For a large period of the film industry’s history many state courts did not grant the freedom of speech to films. Censorship boards in multiple states had the authority to chop up movies multiple times or ban them altogether if they believed a movie was not morally fit to be viewed by the public. An important case that clearly outlines the courts’ early reasons for not granting the film industry such rights was Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio Industrial Commission in 1915, the result of which was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that state censorship of motion pictures was constitutional. To understand the Supreme Court’s decision, it is important to note the reasons for Mutual Film Corporation to bring the case against the commission.

Mutual sought to restrain the enforcement of an act of the general assembly of Ohio, which was passed in 1913. The act created a board to censor movies that was overseen by the Industrial Commission. Mutual saw three major problems with the law. First, the statue imposed an unlawful burden on interstate commerce; second, the law violated the freedom of speech outlined by the First and Fourteenth Amendment as well as an article in the state Constitution of Ohio; third, the law attempted to delegate legislative power to censors and other boards to determine the application of the law without fixing a standard by which the board would be guided in its decisions.

The Supreme courts disagreed with these contentions. The commerce argument was struck down because the court determined that before the movies can be viewed they must be seen by a board and censored; they might come from another state, but there must be some point when the films are subject to the laws of the state that they entered. Basically, if it is consumed the state has control over what channels it has to go through. In addition, the courts saw no harm in one more exchange of hands before movies reached theaters.

The statue stated, films of a “moral, educational, or amusing and harmless character shall be passed and approved,” and the courts determined while some films may seem to fit this criteria they could still be used for evil and have detrimental effects on the gatherings of people that viewed them. The court argued that while the content of films may seem harmless, they have the power to entice undesirable acts, such as sexual activity. The court immediately felt the argument of extending free speech to films was wrong because, they said, the judicial sense supported the common sense of the country, and listed a plethora of previous cases where censorship of films was upheld by courts. This argument continued on stating that the film industry is one conducted for profit. Thus, the courts concluded that films are definitely not an organ of public opinion, and the attractiveness of movies can create immoral exhibitions.

The objection to the last contention—that there are no concrete standards for censorship—was that the law itself furnishes no standard of what is educational, moral, amusing or harmless, and hence leaves the decision to arbitrary judgment. The judgments passed by the board “gets precision from the sense and experience of men.”

The obstruction of commerce argument is not that strong. Films did take more time to reach audiences due to the fact that they had to be reviewed and cut up multiple times before they went to theaters, but whether the law put a burden on companies ability to make stable profits is questionable. I believe Mutual knew this was their weakest argument. The argument by itself is logical, but they most likely knew it would be easily struck down, and that’s why it was their first contention.

Warning: Causes Immoral Acts

American society has largely changed since the ruling of Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio Industrial Commission. The courts based their decision on the movies ability to encourage certain frowned upon acts of the time. Many of these values came from Christianity. I strongly believe in the separation of church and state, so what is depicted in movies should have this separation from religion as well. I have also never been one for censorship, whether in the press or in music. It hampers creativity, which is one of the worse affects on society possible, at least in my mind. As our society’s openness expanded the powerful religious groups and other concerned authorities that pushed for films to be censored lost power. Films, however, are no longer educational unless they are documentaries. They are also not regarded as a form of press. I can see how people may have wanted such censorship in the past, but I do not agree with it.

The court’s argument against the last of Mutual’s contentions goes no farther than to simply say the procedures under which the boards acted were fitting for the statue. The experience of men was surely different from state to state, but certain religious values were spread equally no matter what region of the country a film might be in. Thus, censorship of films was probably similar in multiple states. It would have made more sense to define what the boards should look for, but I can see why the courts left the details out: it gave more power to the censorship board.

The Miracle, an obscure Italian film of the early 1950s, paved the way for freedom of speech and expression in movies. In New York City, the film was banned after the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency called the film “a blasphemous mockery of Christian-religious truth.” Joseph Burstyn, the film’s distributor, challenged the ban of the film and won. The decision of the Supreme Court is very significant to the history of films because it overturned the 1915 ruling of Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio Industrial Commission by stating that “expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” The decision is also significant because it signals when people began to question certain entities power to censor movies.

I do not believe there should be any type of censorship of movies made, distributed of shown in the U.S. My main reason being that I have never really been one for censorship. I can understand why some may call for a ban against violence, drug use, promiscuity and may other negative aspects of our culture in movies; the reason being that children should not exposed to such things at a young age. It is up to parents, however, and not laws to make sure that children are not negatively affected by movies, television or videogames. It is also up to the parent whether or not their child sees vulgar movies or plays violent videogames. I had the freedom to do such things when I was younger, and I have grown into a healthy adult. It made me consider what I thought was acceptable at a young age. I can exercise empathy and sympathy for people involved in tragic events. The news is so powerful at times I feel the need to act. Movies can have this effect to. When I watched ‘City of God’ it made me contemplate the lives of the less fortune around the globe and their daily struggles. When I watched ‘Dead Presidents’ it made me consider the hardships of African Americans in the U.S. who had served in the army, only to come back stateside and face even greater challenges. Both of these movies are very violent, but the passion and realism of their production is part of what made me contemplate the meaning of them deeply.

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