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How the Supreme Court Dramatically Changed Morality in the Movie Industry—Twice

Arguably, the saga of the American movie industry has gone full circle—salacious (relatively speaking), to moral and proper, and back to salacious. The Supreme Court played a significant role in the last two stages of that cycle.

The cinema emerged as a major contributor to American culture in the early decades of the twentieth century. In its infancy, the industry suffered a number of high-profile scandals involving movie stars that upset the decidedly moral populace of that era. Hollywood also inflicted injury to itself by producing a handful of movies that were deemed indecent for the broad public. In reaction, states began to censor films that did not meet the standards deemed appropriate for their citizenry.

In 1915, the Supreme Court determined that the states had the authority to do so. In a unanimous decision considering an Ohio statute that created a board of censors for motion picture films, the Court ruled that states could censor or prohibit movies that were not deemed to be moral. The Court ruled that movies were not entitled to free speech protection.

Thereafter, other states quickly entered the arena. By 1921, thirty-seven states either had or were considering legislation that would allow them to determine which films could be shown within their states.

Hollywood realized that it had a serious problem. In reaction, it created a Motion Picture Production Code—a set of moral guidelines that movies were expected to abide by. The Code prohibited profanity, depiction of licentiousness or nudity, ridicule of the clergy, or willful offense to any nation, race, or creed. It required that special caution be exercised in depicting certain scenes or themes—for example, the use of drugs, sympathy for criminals, and men and women sharing the same bed.

The Code ruled the industry for several decades. Many within the industry bridled at the restraints they were forced to operate under, but the Code remained in place. It was enforced with some strictness because the movie studios realized that the states were in a position to respond with censorship should the industry stray too far from what the Code required.

In 1952, however, that threat was considerably weakened. In a case involving the censoring board in the state of New York, the Supreme Court decided that a movie could not be withheld from the public because it was deemed to be sacrilegious. In question was a New York statute that required the prior approval and licensing of movies. If a movie was deemed to be obscene, indecent, immoral, or sacrilegious, it could be banned. The Supreme Court reversed its decision from 1915 and held that movies were entitled to First Amendment protection. The Court carefully crafted its ruling to apply only to movies banned for being sacrilegious, saying that it was not preventing a state from banning a movie for being obscene.

But the fact that the Supreme Court attached First Amendment status to movies led to an inevitable result.

Seeing the possibilities, the movie industry moved quickly. The Code was pushed against and violated by prominent directors and producers. The competition of television and foreign-produced films motivated the movie industry to look for ways to keep its prominent position as the first choice for the entertainment dollar.

By the 1960s, the Code was all but history. In 1968, it was replaced by the current rating system for movies.

The Supreme Court aided the movie industry in removing the shackles of state censorship. Its 1973 Miller decision, defining what was obscene, opened the front door for it to rule against a Georgia statue outlawing the showing of obscene movies in Georgia. At question was the 1974 conviction of a Georgia theater owner who had shown the movie Carnal Knowledge. A jury found the movie to be obscene under the Georgia statute, which defined obscenity more strictly than did the Supreme Court in Miller. The Justices determined (after reviewing the film) that it was not obscene under its 1973 definition. State censorship laws became irrelevant.

To judge the impact of the Supreme Court’s attaching First Amendment protection to movies, one need only spend time watching movies from the 1930s to the 1950s and contrasting them with movies produced today.

Lead image from Shutterstock

Supreme Power

Best-selling author Ted Stewart explains how the Supreme Court and its nine appointed members now stand at a crucial point in their power to hand down momentous and far-ranging decisions. Today's Court affects every major area of American life, from health care to civil rights, from abortion to marriage.

In his fascinating book Supreme Power, Stewart reveals the complex history of the Court as told through seven pivotal decisions. These cases originally seemed narrow in scope, but they vastly expanded the interpretation of law. Such is the power of judicial review to make sweeping, often unforeseen, changes in American society by revising the meaning of our Constitution.

Filled with insight, commentary, and compelling stories of ordinary citizens coming to the judiciary for remedy for the problems of their day, Supreme Power illustrates the magnitude of the Court's power to interpret the Constitution and decide the law of the land.

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