Prior Restraint In Film

Prior Restraint in film existed even before the Lumière Brothers awed and terrified audiences with their very early film of a train coming into a station. The danger of film – because of its universality and its appeal (particularly to young and working classes) – was quickly recognized and feared. Film has a way to make us feel in a way no other medium can. When employed correctly, film takes the imminence power of words, images, and music and makes it one even more powerful message – a message ripe for censorship.

Film and censorship are so intricately linked that the first case of film censorship took place before film itself was even invented.  In 1893, Thomas Edison was preparing some images for a special Kinescope (the precursor to motion pictures). Among the moving pictures he intended to show was of a well-known turn of the century erotic dancer, Fatima. Edison ended up producing a censored version with white cross-hatchings etched access the image. Motion picture film followed soon after in 1894 and was quickly met with many cases of censorship throughout the years.

One of the best known and widest ranging sets of censorship was the Production Code. Even if you have never heard of it before, you have almost certainly seen its effects. William Hays arrived in Hollywood in January of 1922 to help the motion picture business recover from a recent series of scandals that had rocked box office numbers. Throughout the 1920s, Hays introduced more and more restrictions and cautions on what should be seen in movies and what should not. Finally, spurred in part by the worries of big investors back East who had already lost big in the Stock Market Crash, Hays succeeded in passing an official production code on February 17, 1930. The Production Code, known more colloquially as the Hays Code was largely drawn up by Martin Quigley, publisher of the Motion Picture Herald, and Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J. of Saint Louis University. The code, which remained in effect until 1968 centered around three general principles:

  1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, or shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Even after script submission became mandatory in October of 1931 it was still possible to work around the Studio Relations Committee – the body that attempted to enforce the code. Much more difficult was getting past local and state censors – particularly the New York film review board.

On July 1 1934, the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association) board renamed the Studio Relations Committee the Production Code Administration (PCA). With this change came the ability to finally control the content streaming from Hollywood to theaters everywhere. The board created the PCA seal of approval which each film was now required to earn before releasing, distributing, or exhibiting a film. Attempts to defy this new rule would incur a fine of $25,000.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Production Code began its long road of decline – a road that gained momentum when the Supreme Court overturned precedent supporting film censorship in Burstyn v. Wilson (1952).  In Burstyn v. Wilson the court ruled unanimously that a New York statute enjoining sacrilege was too broad to satisfy the First Amendment, now applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. It was also the first time the Supreme Court referred to films as a medium of speech and artistic expression.

The last two major blows to the production code were Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, with which the Studio Relations Committee approved much more than ever before and another Supreme Court case: Freedman v. Maryland. In Freedman v. Maryland (1965) the Supreme Court finally put limits on film censorship. In order to censor all, or part, of a film the would-be censors would now have to pass three new standards. First, they would have to bear the burden of proof. Any would-be censors had to prove that a certain film or scene was an example of unprotected expression. Second, they would need to make their claim quickly and, third, they were subjected to judicial review. Any prior restraint laws would now need to include a provision for a prompt review by the courts before any censorship.

The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America – Previously MPPDA) took this ruling as an opportunity. The days of the production code were now officially over and, in order to smooth the way with film review boards who found themselves on increasingly shaky ground, the MPAA introduced a measure of self-censorship – film ratings. The ratings, originally, G (general audience), M (mature audience), R (restricted – no one under 17 unaccompanied by a parent or guardian) and X (no one under 17), have morphed since its November 1968 debut to the system we know today (G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17).

Though today United States filmmakers enjoy wide ranging freedoms on what they can bring to the screen, every country is not as free. China, India, Lebanon and many other countries all have active film review boards. Wood Allen’s Blue Jasmine was unable to release in India because Allen would not conform to India’s rules on smoking in movies and Lebanon has recently banned a film which focuses on homosexuality.

Though many cases of censorship around the world and in our history seem ridiculous today, some movies appear more graphic than is good for our society by some including me. For example, take Riddick, which premiered in September. Though I will freely admit that I have not seen the movie, from the trailer and plot synopsis it appears that this movie had no purpose than to include as many graphic battles as possible and show off improved special effects. Is a movie like this contributing at all to our society? Though some studies claim there are no adverse effects of violent video games or violent movies it still worries me. With Hollywood constantly ratcheting up the pace, violence, shock, and amount of skin showing, I’ve begun to worry about where some films are headed. It cannot be good for us to constantly be exposed to so much controversial material.

On the other hand could we constitutionally censor extreme senseless violence in movies? If we were to censor some violence, how much would we let through? Certainly we would not want to return to the days of the Production Code but how much do we really want through? Would the context matter? Could we censor a movie like Riddick but allow 12 Years a Slave which shows just how brutal some slave owners were?

Another argument against censorship would be the ratings system. It serves to let us know if a movie is appropriate for different audiences and leaves decisions up to viewers and parents. I would argue, however, that some material we get today may not be appropriate for anyone. More importantly, an R rating does not necessarily keep underage patrons out. Some parents are willing to let their children see just about anything and with the way most theaters are set up there is nothing to stop an underage patron from simply buying a ticket to a lower rated a film and going to see the R-rated movie instead.

While I am hesitant to promote any censorship, if filmmakers do not start considering more the effects of their films we may want to begin discussing a new production code. What do you think?

Further Sources:

Censored Hollywood by Frank Miller

Freedom of Speech in the United States (6th Edition) by Tedford & Herbeck


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