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History of Film Censorship

A Short Timeline History

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Because films convey life experience so evocatively, and so directly, they are especially troubling to censors. Violence on screen really looks like violence, nudity on screen really looks like nudity, and profanity on screen really sounds like profanity. Film is, in that respect, a very worldly medium—and it is the business of censors to shield people from worldliness.

1894

Dorolita's Passion Dance, a short bellydancing film, is banned in the Kinetoscope Arcade of Atlantic City, New Jersey by the mayor—making it the first film banned in the United States.

1899

Eugéne Pirou's La Coucher de la Mariée features a striptease and bathing scene by actress Louise Willy, who would go on to star in a dozen or so additional short films. Due to the small size of the film industry at the time, the film attracts little attention from censors.

1908

L'Ecu d'Or ou la Bonne Auberge, the oldest surviving hardcore pornographic film, is released. Early pornographic films were frequently displayed at brothels and found, then generally destroyed, by police during raids.

1915

In Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court rules 9-0 that films do not constitute free speech. As Justice Joseph McKenna writes in the majority opinion:
Are moving pictures within the [free speech] principle, as it is contended they are? They, indeed, may be mediums of thought, but so are many things. So is the theater, the circus, and all other shows and spectacles, and their performances may be thus brought by the like reasoning under the same immunity from repression or supervision as the public press, made the same agencies of civil liberty …

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 Mutual Film Corporation ruling is not, as many commentators have suggested, an explicit statement that the First Amendment cannot cover film—as until the incorporation doctrine was set out in Gitlow, state-level laws restricting free speech were not seen as part of the First Amendment's mandate to begin with—but its basic position, that film is a business industry rather than a full medium of expression, would remain the prevailing view until the 1950s. Despite this view, many films of the era continued to deal with morally complex themes, controversial topics, and sexuality.

1930

The Motion Picture Production Code, better known as the Hays Code (named after its author, Republican National Committee chairman Will H. Hays), imposes a strict and puritanical system of regulations on any films produced by major Hollywood studios. The Hays Code's primary guidelines were fairly straightforward:
  1. 1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. 2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. 3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
But the implications of this code were bizarre, and substantially limited the ability of filmmakers to tell stories. The Code's servile attitude towards the law, for example, meant complete submission to Jim Crow laws—the Code explicitly banned depictions of interracial relationships (describing them as representative of "miscegenation"), and prevented criticism of unjust laws by requiring that "courts of the land should not be presented as unjust." Because the Code also established that members of the clergy "should not be used as comic characters or villains," pastors were presented as unrealistically saintly figures who could not disagree on matters of moral significance. Mere mention of Sodom, Amsterdam, and Babylon could have been regarded as too sexually explicit for the Hays Code censors, because these cities were "so closely and thoroughly associated with sexual life or with sexual sin that their use must be carefully limited." Films could not depict the early drug war, because "[t]he existence of the trade should not be brought to the attention of audiences." And the Hays Code would not have been complete without a cryptic parting shot at lesbians and gay men: "the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law," the Code states, "must not be made to seem right and permissible."

While there were some subsequent revisions to the Code, its overall emphasis on sanitizing the story of human life, and presenting institutional power in an almost comically positive light, may have contributed, indirectly, to the later emergence of the Religious Right.

1952

In Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that films are subject to First Amendment protection.

1966

The Motion Picture of Association (MPAA) creates a series of voluntary film ratings to replace the Hays Code. Within two years, the Hays Code is abandoned and our current system, based on a spectrum of film ratings, is put into place.

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