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Inc. v. Wilson Joseph Burstyn Commissioner of Education of New York etal.

Movies As Free Press

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, found that the New York law was unconstitutional, offending both the First and the Fourteenth Amendments. The High Court struck down the law and affirmed Joseph Burstyn, Inc.'s right to show The Miracle in New York State. However, in the course of handing down their decision, they did far more than that.

The majority decision, written by Justice Clark, established that motion pictures were now to be considered as an aspect of free speech and free press. The Court considered the argument that because movies are made for profit by large businesses, they do not constitute "free speech." It also considered the argument that motion pictures posses "a greater capacity for evil" than other types of expression, particularly in their ability to corrupt young people, and that therefore, they needed to be regulated more than other types of expression.

Yet the Court found both of these arguments unconvincing. Even if movies needed some regulation, Clark wrote, even if they needed more regulation than, say, books or newspapers, they still should not be subject to the kind of sweeping censorship inherent in the New York law.

Both Justice Clark and Justice Frankfurter, who wrote a concurring opinion, held that state government had no business prohibiting movies on the grounds that they were "sacrilegious." (The Court left open the possibility that movies could be prohibited for being "obscene.") As Frankfurter wrote:

A motion picture portraying Christ as divine--for example, a movie showing medieval Church art--would offend the religious opinions of the members of several Protestant denominations who do not believe in the Trinity, as well as those of a non-Christian faith. Conversely, one showing Christ as merely an ethical teacher could not but offend millions of Christians of many denominations. Which is "sacrilegious"? . . . To allow such vague, undefinable powers of censorship to be exercised is bound to have stultifying consequences on the creative process of literature and art . . . We not only do not know but cannot know what is condemnable by "sacrilegious." Frankfurter essentially questioned how anyone, save those to be governed by the statute could tell what was "sacrilegious."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Inc. v. Wilson Joseph Burstyn Commissioner of Education of New York etal. - Significance, A Controversial Film, Sacrilege Or Art?, Movies As Free Press, Sacrilege And The Arts