Supreme Court decision
By: Thomas Campbell Clark
Date: May 26, 1952
Source: Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952). Available online at FindLaw for Legal Professionals. http://caselaw.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=... (accessed February 9, 2003).
About the Author: Thomas Campbell Clark (1899–1977) was born in Dallas, Texas. In 1922, he received a law degree from the University of Texas. He was appointed a special assistant to the U.S. attorney general in 1937 and rose to U.S. attorney general in 1945. In 1949, Clark was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served until he retired in 1967.
In the 1950s, New York State had a law mandating that films had to be licensed by the state to be publicly shown. The law read, "The director of the [motion picture] division [of the education department] or, when authorized by the regents, the officers of a local office or bureau shall cause to be promptly examined every motion picture film submitted to them as herein required, and unless such film or a part thereof is obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious, or is of such a character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or incite to crime, shall issue a license therefore. If such director or, when so authorized, such officer shall not license any film submitted, he shall furnish to the applicant therefor a written report of the reasons for his refusal and a description of each rejected part of a film not rejected in toto."
Joseph Burstyn, Inc., was a corporation that distributed motion pictures in New York, including a movie entitled The Miracle. Some groups in the state considered the movie sacrilegious and therefore religiously offensive and called on Commissioner Wilson of the New York State Department of Education, which denied or granted licenses for movies to be shown in theaters, to withdraw the film's license. Wilson agreed, and the film could no longer be shown in public theaters.
The film's distributor sued in the state court to force Commissioner Wilson to grant the license. The New York Appellate Division sustained the revocation of the license, deeming the film "sacrilegious," and the Court of Appeals of New York affirmed the decision. Burstyn then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the state law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. In a unanimous decision delivered by Justice Clark, the Court agreed.
This landmark decision was a victory for those who opposed the imposition of religious standards by state or federal governments. According to the Court, movies, like books, newspapers, and other printed matter, are important methods for communicating ideas among people. The free exchange of ideas in an open society like the United States had to be protected from the imposition of religious views on public discourse, including films.
The Court's decision reinforced the guarantees of freedom from religious censorship under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.…" The Fourteenth Amendment, which extends the federal protections of the First Amendment to the states, says, "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Primary Source: Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: In these excerpts, Justice Clark explains why the New York State law banning sacrilegious films was unconstitutional: the standard for deciding what was sacrilegious or not was too vague; the censor had no clear guidelines in making such decisions; and the state should not be in the business of protecting people from views that it may find to be offensive.
Mr. Justice Clark delivered the opinion of the Court.
… The issue here is the constitutionality, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, of a New York statute which permits the banning of motion picture films on the ground that they are "sacrilegious." That statute makes it unlawful "to exhibit, or to sell, lease or lend for exhibition at any place of amusement for pay or in connection with any business in the state of New York, any motion picture film or reel [with specified exceptions not relevant here], unless there is at the time in full force and effect a valid license or permit therefor of the education department …" The statute further provides:
"The director of the [motion picture] division [of the education department] of, when authorized by the regents, the officers of a local office or bureau shall cause to be promptly examined every motion picture film submitted to them as herein required, and unless such film or a part thereof is obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious, or is of such a character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or incite to crime, shall issue a license therefor. If such director or, when so authorized, such officer shall not license any film submitted, he shall furnish to the applicant therefor a written report of the reasons for his refusal and a description of each rejected part of a film not rejected in toto."
Appellant is a corporation engaged in the business of distributing motion pictures. It owns the exclusive rights to distribute throughout the United States a film produced in Italy entitled "The Miracle." On November 30, 1950, after having examined the picture, the motion picture division of the New York education department, acting under the statute quoted above, issued to appellant a license authorizing exhibition of "The Miracle," with English subtitles, as one part of a trilogy called "Ways of Love." Thereafter, for a period of approximately eight weeks, "Ways of Love" was exhibited publicly in a motion picture theater in New York City under an agreement between appellant and the owner of the theater whereby appellant received a stated percentage of the admission price.During this period, the New York State Board of Regents, which by statute is made the head of the education department, received "hundreds of letters, telegrams, post cards, affidavits and other communications" both protesting against and defending the public exhibition of "The Miracle." The Chancellor of the Board of Regents requested three members of the Board to view the picture and to make a report to the entire Board. After viewing the film, this committee reported to the Board that in its opinion there was basis for the claim that the picture was "sacrilegious." Thereafter, on January 19, 1951, the Regents directed appellant to show cause, at a hearing to be held on January 30, why its license to show "The Miracle" should not be rescinded on that ground. Appellant appeared at this hearing, which was conducted by the same three-member committee of the Regents which had previously viewed the picture, and challenged the jurisdiction of the committee and of the Regents to proceed with the case. With the consent of the committee, various interested persons and organizations submitted to it briefs and exhibits bearing upon the merits of the picture and upon the constitutional and statutory questions involved. On February 16, 1951, the Regents, after viewing "The Miracle," determined that it was "sacrilegious" and for that reason ordered the Commissioner of Education to rescind appellant's license to exhibit the picture. The Commissioner did so.
Appellant brought the present action in the New York courts to review the determination of the Regents. Among the claims advanced by appellant were (1) that the statute violates the Fourteenth Amendment as a prior restraint upon freedom of speech and of the press; (2) that it is invalid under the same Amendment as a violation of the guaranty of separate church and state and as a prohibition of the free exercise of religion; and, (3) that the term "sacrilegious" is so vague and indefinite as to offend due process. The Appellate Division rejected all of appellant's contentions and upheld the Regents' determination. On appeal the New York Court of Appeals, two judges dissenting, affirmed the order of the Appellate Division. The case is here on appeal.
As we view the case, we need consider only appellant's contention that the New York statute is an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech and a free press.…
It cannot be doubted that motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas. They may affect public attitudes and behavior in a variety of ways, ranging from direct espousal of a political or social doctrine to the subtle shaping of thought which characterizes all artistic expression. The importance of motion pictures as an organ of public opinion is not lessened by the fact that they are designed to entertain as well as to inform. As was said in Winters v. New York (1948):
The line between the informing and the entertaining is too elusive for the protection of that basic right [a free press]. Everyone is familiar with instances of propaganda through fiction. What is one man's amusement, teaches another's doctrine.…
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.…
The statute involved here does not seek to punish, as a past offense, speech or writing falling within the permissible scope of subsequent punishment. On the contrary, New York requires that permission to communicate ideas be obtained in advance from state officials who judge the content of the words and pictures sought to be communicated. This Court recognized many years ago that such a previous restraint is a form of infringement upon freedom of expression to be especially condemned.… The Court there recounted the history which indicates that a major purpose of the First Amendment guaranty of a free press was to prevent prior restraints upon publication, although it was carefully pointed out that the liberty of the press is not limited to that protection.…
The most careful and tolerant censor would find it virtually impossible to avoid favoring one religion over another, and he would be subject to an inevitable tendency to ban the expression of unpopular sentiments sacred to a religious minority. Application of the "sacrilegious" test, in these or other respects, might raise substantial questions under the First Amendment's guaranty of separate church and state with freedom of worship for all. However, from the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures.…
We hold only that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments a state may not ban a film on the basis of a censor's conclusion that it is "sacrilegious."
Censorship: For & Against. New York: Hart, 1971.
Jones, Derek, ed. Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.
Basinger, Jeanaine. "HUAC and Censorship Changes." From American Cinema: One Hundred Years of Filmmaking, 1994. Available online at ; website home page: http://www.moderntimes.com/palace/index.html (accessed February 9, 2003).
National Council of Teachers of English. "Anti-Censorship." Available online at ; website home page: http://www.ncte.org/index.shtml (accessed February 9, 2003).