1952 May 26

“The Miracle!”: Movies Protected by First Amendment


In Burstyn v. Wilson, decided on this day, the Supreme Court held that movies were a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. The Catholic Church had objected to the Italian film, The Miracle (Il Miracolo), when it opened at the Paris Theater in New York City in 1950. The Court’s decision overruled Mutual v. Ohio Industrial Commission, decided on February 23, 1915, which had held that movies are items of commerce and not forms of expression protected by the First Amendment. The Miracle was directed by the famed Italian director Roberto Rossellini and is actually one part of a two-part film, L’Amore (1948), which is the more widely used title. The story was written by Federico Fellini, who also has a bit part in the movie, and who went on to became a famous director himself (especially the film, 8 1/2).


In addition to providing First Amendment protection for movies, the Burstyn decision also struck a blow for freedom of expression about religion. The majority opinion specifically referred to the attempt to censor The Miracle because of its alleged “sacrilege,” but for all practical purposes that also covered “blasphemy.” See International Blasphemy Day, established on September 30, 2009.

The Court in Burstyn: “ . . . we conclude that expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Learn About the film and the case: Laura Wittern-Keller and Raymond Haberski, The Miracle Case: Film Censorship and the Supreme Court (2009)

Learn more: Frank Walsh, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry (1996)

Watch excerpts from the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6z8xTzea3XI

Learn more about the sexual revolution in the movies in the 1960s and 1970s: Robert Hofler, Sexplosion: From Andy Warhold to A Clockwork Orange — How a Generation of Pop Rebels  Brake All the Taboos (2014)

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