Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952)

Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson represents an important landmark in the development of First Amendment jurisprudence on expressive freedom in mass media. In the 1915 case of Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission, the first Supreme Court controversy involving the motion picture industry, the justices ruled that ‘‘the exhibition of moving pictures is a business pure and simple, . . . not to be regarded . . . as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion.’’ Almost contemporaneously, the Court reasoned in the 1922 case of Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v. National League that ‘‘exhibitions of base ball . . . are purely state affairs’’ and that transportation facilitating games ‘‘between clubs from different cities’’ is ‘‘a mere incident’’ to interstate commerce. Although oddly contradictory, these proclamations had the effect of insulating both movies and baseball from the jurisdiction of the federal courts. By declaring motion pictures outside the scope of the First Amendment, Mutual Film eliminated constitutional protection of the movie industry for a generation.

In the 1948 decision of United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., the Supreme Court treated ‘‘moving pictures, like newspapers and radio,’’ as part of the press whose freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment.’’ Four years later, the Court would decisively resolve the tension between Mutual Film and Paramount in favor of constitutional protection of motion pictures. The 1952 decision of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson concerned a New York statute that allowed the state department of education to forbid the exhibition of any ‘‘film or a part thereof ?’’ that was ‘‘obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious, or . . . of such a character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or incite to crime.’’ Joseph Burstyn, Inc., owned the exclusive rights to distribute throughout the United States an Italian film called The Miracle. In November 1950, after examining the film, the motion picture division of the education department, issued a license authorizing exhibition of The Miracle, with English subtitles, as part of a trilogy called Ways of Love. The Miracle proved quite controversial, and hundreds of letters, telegrams, and post cards, both protesting and supporting the film persuaded the New York State Board of Regents to review the film. In February 1951, the regents determined that The Miracle was ‘‘sacrilegious,’’ and on that ground ordered the rescission of Burstyn’s license to exhibit the film. New York courts upheld the regents’ action.

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized Burstyn as ‘‘the first to present squarely . . . the question whether motion pictures are within the ambit of protection which the First Amendment, through the Fourteenth, secures to any form of ‘speech’ or ‘the press.’’’ The Court held ‘‘that motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas.’’ Writing for the Court, Justice Tom Clark recognized that the movies ‘‘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 movies’ significance ‘‘as an organ of public opinion,’’ the Court observed, ‘‘is not lessened by the fact that they are designed to entertain as well as to inform.’’ Nor would the Court dilute constitutional protection for motion pictures on the ground that they ‘‘are published and sold for profit.’’ Like ‘‘books, newspapers, and magazines,’’ motion pictures won recognition as ‘‘a form of expression whose liberty is safeguarded by the First Amendment.’’ The Court thereupon included ‘‘expression by means of motion pictures . . . within the free speech and free press guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments’’ and overruled contrary language in Mutual Film.

Seven years after Burstyn, the Supreme Court’s decision in Kingsley International Pictures Corp. v. Regents invalidated a ban on nonobscene portrayals of ‘‘sexual immorality [as] desirable, acceptable, or proper . . . behavior.’’ Burstyn continues to influence contemporary First Amendment jurisprudence. Landmark cases such as Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC and FCC v. Pacifica Foundation have cited Burstyn for the proposition that ‘‘differences in the characteristics of new media justify differences in the First Amendment standards applied to them.’’

JIM CHEN

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978)
  • Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v. National League, 259 U.S. 200 (1922)
  • Kingsley International Pictures Corp. v. Regents, 360 U.S. 684 (1959)
  • MutualFilmCorp.v. IndustrialCommission,236U.S.230(1915)
  • Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969)
  • United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 U.S. 131 (1948)

See also Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969)

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