Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981

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University Press of Kentucky, 2008 M01 11 - 384 pages
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At the turn of the twentieth century, the proliferation of movies attracted not only the attention of audiences across America but also the apprehensive eyes of government officials and special interest groups concerned about the messages disseminated by the silver screen. Between 1907 and 1926, seven statesÑNew York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Kansas, Maryland, and MassachusettsÑand more than one hundred cities authorized censors to suppress all images and messages considered inappropriate for American audiences. Movie studios, hoping to avoid problems with state censors, worrying that censorship might be extended to the federal level, and facing increased pressure from religious groups, also jumped into the censoring business, restraining content through the adoption of the self-censoring Production Code, also known as the Hays code.But some industry outsiders, independent distributors who believed that movies deserved the free speech protections of the First Amendment, brought legal challenges to censorship at the state and local levels. Freedom of the Screen chronicles both the evolution of judicial attitudes toward film restriction and the plight of the individuals who fought for the right to deliver provocative and relevant movies to American audiences. The path to cinematic freedom was marked with both achievements and roadblocks, from the establishment of the Production Code Administration, which effectively eradicated political films after 1934, to the landmark cases over films such as The Miracle (1948), La ronde (1950), and Lady ChatterleyÕs Lover (1955) that paved the way for increased freedom of expression. As the fight against censorship progressed case by case through state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, legal authorities and the public responded, growing increasingly sympathetic toward artistic freedom. Because a small, unorganized group of independent film distributors and exhibitors in mid-twentieth-century America fought back against what they believed was the unconstitutional prior restraint of motion pictures, film after 1965 was able to follow a new path, maturing into an artistic medium for the communication of ideas, however controversial. Government censors would no longer control the content of AmericaÕs movie screens. Laura Wittern-KellerÕs use of previously unexplored archival material and interviews with key figures earned her the researcher of the year award from the New York State Board of Regents and the New York State Archives Partnership Trust. Her exhaustive work is the first to discuss more than five decades of film censorship battles that rose from state and local courtrooms to become issues of national debate and significance. A compendium of judicial action in the film industry, Freedom of the Screen is a tribute to those who fought for the constitutional right of free expression and paved the way for the variety of films that appear in cinemas today.

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1 The Origins of Governmental Film Censorship 19071923
2 The Courts Provide No Relief 19091927
3 Hollywood and the Legion of Decency 19221934
4 Early Challenges to State Censors 19271940
5 The First Amendment Resurfaces 19461950
6 The Strange Case of The Miracle 19501952
7 La Ronde 19511954
9 The Seventh Case in Seven Years 19571959
10 The Curtain Coming Down 19571964
11 Fight for Freedom of the Screen 19621965
12 Denouement 19651981
Selected Bibliography

8 The Tide Turns against the Censors 19531957

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About the author (2008)

Laura Wittern-Keller is visiting assistant professor of history and public policy at the University at Albany (SUNY) and the recipient of the New York State Archives Award for Excellence in Research. She also lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with her husband.

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