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Burstyn v. Wilson

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Significance: The Supreme Court held, for the first time, that films were a medium for expressing ideas and therefore deserved a degree of protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.


The film in question, The Miracle, was an Italian import that told the story of a peasant girl who, after being seduced by a stranger, gave birth to a son she believed to be Jesus Christ. The New York censors ruled that the film was “sacrilegious,” and it was banned from the state. The practice of film censorship had been approved by the Supreme Court in its first ruling on films, Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915), which held that films were not covered by any constitutional guarantee of free expression because they were “business pure and simple.” The Court unanimously reversed the 1915 ruling and ruled that the vague concept “sacrilegious” was unacceptable as a standard for prior restraint. Justice Tom C. Clark's opinion for the majority argued that preexhibition censorship was justified only in exceptional cases, and that standards must not permit unfettered discretion by censors. Clark acknowledged that films, because of their special potential for harm, might enjoy less First Amendment protection than printed materials, but he refused to discuss whether states had a legitimate interest in censoring pornographic films. The prerogative of states to engage in film censorship was further restricted in Roth v. United States (1957), when the Court narrowly defined obscenity and ruled that any nonobscene expression of ideas was protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. In Freedman v. Maryland (1965), the Court continued to allow censorship of films but only under stringent procedures that include prompt judicial review.