1915 February 23

Supreme Court Rules Movies Not Protected by First Amendment


In Mutual v. Ohio, decided on this day, the Supreme Court ruled that the still-new medium of motion pictures was not a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. The decision upheld the activities of state and local censorship efforts until the 1950s. Movies finally gained First Amendment protection in the 1952 Supreme Court decision Burstyn v. Wilson, over the film The Miracle, decided on May 26, 1952.

Following the 1915 Mutual decision, five states and a number of cities maintained censorship boards. The states were New York, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and Kansas. The major restriction on expression in the movies was not by government agencies but through self-censorship by the film industry itself. The most notorious restriction was the Motion Picture Production Code, adopted on June 13, 1934.

Learn more: Laura Wittern-Keller, Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915–1981 (2008)

Learn about film censorship in the 1920s and 1930s: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYOm6ar716w

Learn more about the landmark 1952 Burstyn case: Laura Wittern-Keller and Raymond Haberski, The Miracle Case (2009)

See a timeline of film censorship: https://www.aclu.org/files/multimedia/censorshiptimeline.html

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