Freedom of the ScreenLegal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981

Freedom of the ScreenLegal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981

Laura Wittern-Keller

Print publication date: 2011

ISBN: 9780813124513

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky


The proliferation of movies at the turn of the twentieth century attracted not only the attention of audiences across America, but also the apprehensive eyes of government officials and special interest groups concerned about the messages which the movies disseminated. Between 1907 and 1926, seven states and more than 100 cities authorized censors to suppress all images and messages considered inappropriate for American audiences. Movie studios, hoping to avoid problems with state censors, worrying that censorship might be extended to the federal level, and facing increased pressure from religious groups, also jumped into the censoring business. They restrained the content by adopting the self-censoring Production Code, also known as the Hays code. Some industry outsiders, however, believed that movies deserved the free speech protections of the First Amendment and brought legal challenges to censorship at the state and local levels. This book chronicles both the evolution of judicial attitudes toward film restriction, and the plight of the individuals who fought for the right to deliver provocative and relevant movies to American audiences. The path to cinematic freedom was marked with both achievements and roadblocks, which are discussed in detail. The book's coverage extends from the establishment of the Production Code Administration, to the landmark cases over films such as The Miracle, La ronde, and Lady Chatterley's Lover which paved the way for increased freedom of expression. As the fight against censorship progressed case by case through state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, legal authorities and the public responded, growing increasingly sympathetic toward artistic freedom. A small, unorganized group of independent film distributors and exhibitors during the middle of the twentieth-century fought back against what they believed was an unconstitutional prior restraint of motion pictures. This effectively gave films after 1965 a new direction and allowed movies to mature into an artistic medium.