In 1913, Ohio established a board of censors for motion pictures under the auspices of the state’s Industrial Commission. Mutual Film Corporation, after a state court refused its request for an interlocutory injunction to stop the law’s implementation, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A unanimous Court affirmed the lower court’s decision.
Mutual FilmCorporation operated a motion picture exchange, leasing or selling annually roughly five thousand prints of films to exhibitors in Ohio and Michigan. The prints could not be exhibited in Ohio without the censor board’s approval and all the films were reviewed at the corporation’s expense. The Supreme Court dismissed Mutual Film’s contentions that Ohio’s law impeded interstate commerce, violated freedom of speech and publication under Ohio’s constitution, and delegated legislative power to the board of censors.
In this decision the Supreme Court upheld the authority of an administrative body to develop rules and standards to implement general laws intended to deter the public distribution or exhibition of indecent or immoral motion pictures. This posture was consistent with the Comstock Act and the power it gave U.S. postal officials to declare material obscene and thus unmailable. Of more importance, the Court ruled the censorship statute did not violate Ohio’s Constitution; motion pictures did not warrant the same protections of free speech and publication guaranteed by the Constitution.
The ‘‘power of amusement,’’ the Court concluded, could make motion pictures ‘‘more insidious in corruption by a pretense of worthy purpose . . . a prurient interest may be excited and appealed to. Besides, there are some things which should not have pictorial representation in public places and to all audiences.’’ The Court thus dismissed the notion that freedom of speech, writing, or publication under Ohio’s Constitution included motion pictures. Motion pictures ‘‘may be mediums of thought,’’ the Court conceded, but then ‘‘so are many things.’’ To accept the appellant’s argument would mean ‘‘the theater, the circus, and all other shows and spectacles’’ would be brought ‘‘by like reasoning under the same immunity from repression of supervision of the public press.’’ Justice McKenna, the opinion author, concluded:
The exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit, like other spectacles, not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion. They are mere representations of events, of ideas and sentiments published and known; vivid, useful, and entertaining, no doubt, but, as we have said, capable of evil, having power for it, the greater because of their attractiveness and manner of exhibition.
In Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952), which involved the licensing authority of the state of New York to suppress motion pictures deemed obscene or immoral, the Supreme Court declared that motion pictures were protected by the guaranty of the First Amendment, stating ‘‘To the extent that language in Mutual Film Corp v. Industrial Comm[ission] . . . is out of harmony with the views here set forth, we no longer adhere to it.’’
ROY B. FLEMMING
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited