The “Miracle” Case and After

While much occurred to the art form known as motion pictures between 1915 and 1952 and many developments were made in the regulation of film content during that time, very little changed legally for films from the Mutual case in 1915 to the “Miracle” case in 1952 (Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495). Several cases of film censorship were challenged in the courts, but all of them were denied injunctions based in great part to the precedent set in Mutual v. Ohio. Examples of films banned in the years following the Mutual decision are Birth Control heard in Message Photo-Play v. Bell, 166 N.Y.S. 338 (Sup. Ct. 1917); The Sex Lure in Ivan Film v. Bell, 167 N.Y.S. 123 (Sup. Ct. 1917); The Spirit of ’76 in United States v. Motion Picture Film The Spirit of’76, 252 F. 946 (S.D. Cal. 1917); The Road to Ruin in Brooks v. City of Birmingham, 32 F. 2d 274 (N.D. Ala. 1929); Ecstasy in Eureka Productions v. Byrne, 300 N.Y.S. 218 (Sup. Ct. 1937); and The Outlaw in Hughes Tool v. Fielding, 80 N.E. 2d 540 (N.Y. App. 1948). In each instance the courts upheld the rejection or revocation of a license for the showing of the film, citing the Mutual case as precedent (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982).  Before 1925 First Amendment rights were not applied to state laws. After the 1925 Gitlow decision, however, it was held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee to due process under the law for all states extended the right of the federal Constitution to state law (see Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652); Pennekamp v. Florida, 328 U.S. 331 (1946); see also Pember, 1999; Zelezny, 2001). But even with this change, motion pictures were still not granted Constitutional protection based on the Mutual decision. That finally changed in 1952 when the Supreme Court heard Burstyn v. Wilson, better known as the “Miracle” case.

The Italian film Il Miracolo (“The Miracle”), written by Frederico Fellini and directed by Roberto Rossellini, was introduced in the United States in 1949 (Cook, D. A., 1990). “The Miracle” was granted a license by the New York state licensing board on March 2, 1949. It was not shown until late 1950, when it was granted a license to be shown with two French films, A Day in the Country and Jofroi (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982; Draper, 1999). The film tells the story of a “demented peasant woman who is seduced by a bearded stranger whom she thinks is Saint Joseph. The woman becomes pregnant, and after being tormented by the people of her village, she is forced to flee into the hills, where she delivers her child in an isolated church as the film ends” (Jowett, 1996, p. 262). The movie opened at the Paris Theater in Manhattan on December 12, 1950, when some film critics and the Catholic Legion of Decency quickly criticized the film as sacrilegious and blasphemous (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982; Randall, 1968).

Twelve days after it opened, Edward T. McCaffrey, the licensing commissioner for the state, told the owners of the Paris Theater that if he did not immediately stop showing the movie then his license would be revoked (Jowett, 1996; Randall, 1968). McCaffrey said he found the film “officially and personally blasphemous” (Randall, 1968, p. 28).  The Paris Theater complied the next day, but the film’s distributor, Joseph Burstyn, went to court challenging the authority of the licensing commissioner to revoke licenses (Burstyn v. McCaffrey, 101 N.Y.S.2d 892 (Sup. Ct. 1951). The New York Supreme Court agreed that the city license commissioner had no power over movie censorship, and the film was showing again one week later (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982). Up to 1,000 members of the Catholic War Veterans picketed outside the Pairs Theater in the weeks following the decision (Randall, 1968). Francis Cardinal Spellman of the Archdiocese of New York publicly denounced the film, calling for Catholics to avoid the film and theaters showing it. Just a few days later, the New York State Board of Regents, which was the governing board over the film licensing board of the state, convened to review the film and the Motion Picture Division’s original decision to grant the film a license. They determined that the film’s license should be revoked on the grounds that it was “sacrilegious” and censorable according to New York licensing laws (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982; Randall, 1968). Burstyn again challenged the Regents decision in court, but the decision was upheld in the New York Supreme Court, Burstyn v. Wilson, 104 N.Y.S.2d 740, as well as in the New York Appeals Court by a 5–2 decision, 101 N.E. 2d 665 (N.Y. App. 1951).

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in February of 1952. Burstyn received little support from the motion picture industry, which was busy trying to influence the outcome of another case involving a Hollywood produced movie, Pinky (Gelling v. Texas, 343 U.S. 960 (1952); see also Jowett, 1996). On May 26, 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the state appeals court decision and lifted the ban on “The Miracle” (343 U.S. 495). Most significantly the opinion stated there were compelling reasons for motion pictures to enjoy constitutional protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Writing the opinion for the Court, Justice Tom C. Clark said,

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. (343 U.S. at 501)

The “Miracle” ruling had established a basis for the First Amendment protection of motion pictures. The Court ruled that the New York statute prohibiting “sacrilegious” content was unconstitutionally vague, but the motion picture industry would have to wait to be completely free of laws restricting the content of movies (Randall, 1968). A series of cases following Burstyn v. Wilson (Gelling v. Texas, 343 U.S. 960; Commercial Pictures v. Board of Regents, Superior Films v. Department of Education of Ohio, 346 U.S. 587 (1954); Holmby Productions v. Vaughn, 350 U.S. 870 (1955) ruled other vague standards, such as “immoral,” “harmful,” and “indecent” to be unconstitutional (Draper, 1999). But all of these cases were decided with per curiam decisions, so it was not until 1957 with Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, that the constitutional line was drawn at obscenity (Randall, 1968; Draper, 1999). Though Roth did not concern a motion picture, the establishment of an obscenity standard set the standard for all motion picture censorship statutes to be measured against. Finally, in Kingsley International Pictures Corp. v. Regents of University of N. Y., 360 U.S. 684 (1957), the principles from Burstyn v. Wilson met the practical definition of unprotected speech in Roth. In Kingsley the Court ruled that a licensing standard that barred the depiction of “sexual immorality” was in essence “a bar to the discussion of ideas” (Randall, 1968, p. 33).

During the time between the “Miracle” and Kingsley decisions state film licensing statutes began to fall to constitutional challenges in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Kansas (Randall, 1968). Two subsequent cases in the sixties, Times Film Corp. v. Chicago, 365 U.S. 43 (1961) and Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51 (1965), rendered most licensing statutes powerless, marking the end to over fifty years of prior censorship through motion picture licensing (Draper, 1999; Liston, 1973). While the courts were redefining protected speech and establishing First Amendment rights for motion pictures, the motion picture Production Code struggled to stay current and pertinent. In 1956 the Production Code was revised to lift restrictions against the portrayal of narcotics, prostitution, and interracial marriage. In 1961 it was further amended to allow cautious depictions of homosexuality (Liston, 1973). In November 1968 the MPAA eliminated the Production Code and introduced a new labeling system in its place. In announcing the new system, MPAA president Jack Valenti said:

There are many audiences and if we seek out the lowest common audience denominator, we will find ourselves making movies that would be . . . inane. We cannot allow children to set the boundaries for motion picture creativity, any more than we would allow children to organize our moral apparatus or our national priorities. But we can be concerned about children. (Liston, 1973, p. 53)

The motion picture ratings system has been in place for over thirty years, and no true form of content regulation, either self-regulation or government regulation, exists for motion pictures. On occasion a film is challenged in court as being obscene or as inciting to violence, but as a whole the film industry must only struggle with the rating their films might receive and what impact the rating may have on their box office success. Though the ratings system has received criticism, this self-regulatory ratings system has proven itself and has served as a pattern for the music industry’s advisory label, some comic book companies’ content labeling systems, and the parental guidelines for television.