ACLU History: Defending 'What Shocked the Censors'

September 1, 2010
While battles over the suppression of political speech raged in the courts during the first half of the 20th century, the public was not particularly concerned with restrictions on artistic words and images by government and private entities, especially works that were sexual in nature. Americans today would find it hard to believe what was suppressed in the not-so-distant past.

Bans on art and literature that offended 'public morals' were the norm, and few challenges were brought, let alone won. The U.S. Customs Service kept many classic works from entering the country, the most famous among them James Joyce's Ulysses, at the time already considered a literary masterpiece. After an 11-year ban, the ACLU's Morris Ernst managed to secure a ruling that the work was not pornographic, and Ulysses became available in the United States for the first time in 1933, more than a decade after publication.

In Hollywood, the Hays Code set the industry standard for self-censorship from 1930 to the late 1950's, with bans on nudity, suggestive dancing and 'lustful kissing.' Also prohibited were depictions of interracial romance and homosexuality, the mocking of religion, illegal drug use, and storylines in which criminals escaped justice. A 1933 ACLU pamphlet, 'What Shocked the Censors,' ridiculed cuts made by New York censors.

It wasn't until the 1950s that the ACLU succeeded in bringing a challenge to film censorship that marked the beginning of the end for the Hays Code. In Burstyn v. New York, the ACLU defended Joseph Burstyn, owner of New York's Paris movie theater, for showing 'The Miracle,' a Roberto Rossellini film about a woman who believes she has given birth to Jesus Christ. Cardinal Spellman denounced the film as blasphemous, churchgoers picketed, and state licensing officials shut down the theater.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which unanimously voted to reject the ban. In the words of Justice Tom C. Clark, the state had 'no legitimate interest in protecting all or any religions from views distasteful to them.' Following this ruling, cities and states all over the country began to lose censorship challenges. At the same time, the public's growing appetite for more sophisticated 'art films' gave theater owners and movie distributors the financial incentive to fight back.


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