The Motion Picture Division of the New York State Education Department was authorized to issue licenses for the exhibition, sale, lease, or distribution of motion pictures. Licenses could be denied to any motion picture portraying in whole or in part, either ‘‘expressly or impliedly’’ immoral, perverse, or lewd sexual acts as ‘‘desirable, acceptable, or proper patterns of behavior.’’ When Kingsley International Pictures submitted a filmed version of H. D. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover to the Education Division for a license, it was denied on the grounds that isolated scenes were immoral. The corporation appealed to the University of New York Regents who upheld the decision after they concluded the film presented adultery as acceptable and proper behavior. A lower court annulled the Regents’ decision, but a sharply divided New York Court of Appeals reinstated the rescission and upheld the Regents. The Court of Appeals declared that although Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not obscene, it nevertheless ‘‘alluringly portrays adultery as proper behavior.’’
The Supreme Court reversed the New York court and struck down the statute’s new sections. As Justice Potter Stewart in his lead opinion stated, ‘‘Once again the Court is required to consider the impact of New York’s motion picture licensing law upon First Amendment liberties.’’ While Stewart delivered the Court’s opinion, there were five written concurring opinions. Justices Black, Frankfurter, and Clark wrote separately. Justice Douglas’ concurrence was joined by Justice Black. Justice Harlan’s opinion was joined by Justices Frankfurter and Whittaker.
Justice Stewart’s brief opinion quickly dismissed the notion that a motion picture could be denied a license because it approvingly portrayed an adulterous relationship ‘‘quite without reference to the manner of its portrayal.’’ To conclude otherwise, he declared, would mean New York could suppress Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the basis that it ‘‘advocates an idea—that adultery under certain circumstances may be proper behavior. Yet the First Amendment’s basic guarantee is of freedom to advocate ideas. The State, quite simply, has thus struck at the very heart of constitutionally protected liberty.’’
Black and Douglas shared the view thatNew York’s law involved prior censorship of motion pictures and thus violated the precedent set in Near v. Minnesota (1931) barring prior restraint. Black wrote separately to lament the Court’s ‘‘individualized determination’’ of whether publications or motion pictures were obscene had converted it into a ‘‘Supreme Board of Censors.’’ Frankfurter and Harlan agreed with the majority’s judgment but not its rationale. Both thought the Court’s opinion failed to address the issue of ‘‘vagueness,’’ which had been the grounds for earlier decisions against New York’s law; that the opinion misconstrued the views of the New York courts; and that even though they agreed, New York’s law was constitutional its application to Lady Chatterley’s Lover exceeded constitutional bounds.
ROY B. FLEMMING
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited