Landmark decision brought freedom to films

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Hollywood loves anniversaries. This year alone has seen the 20th anniversary release of “E.T.,” the 20th anniversary edition of “Tron” and the 25th anniversary edition of “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.”

But America’s filmmakers are overlooking their most important anniversary: It was 50 years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that movies are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

In a remarkable 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court decided that the New York Board of Regents could not ban Roberto Rossellini’s “The Miracle” under regulations barring “sacrilegious” films.

Until that moment, the nation’s courts viewed the movie industry as just another business, fully subject to government regulation. The decision changed American film forever.

Rossellini’s film was about an unstable young woman who is seduced by a bearded wanderer. The girl becomes pregnant, and in her deluded state concludes that the man was in fact a saint and that the imminent birth is a miracle.

Initially the New York Board of Regents granted a license to the film but withdrew the approval after angry protests from the Catholic Church. The Legion of Decency called the movie “a sacrilegious and blasphemous mockery of Christian religious truth.”

The case was appealed by film distributor Joseph Burstyn, giving the Supreme Court the opportunity to weigh in.

“It cannot be doubted that motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas,” wrote Justice Tom Campbell Clark in the majority opinion. “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.”

With this ruling, Joseph Burstyn v. Wilson, the Supreme Court put American movies on the same footing as books and newspapers. It wiped out the system of prior restraint that had governed the film industry for decades.

As with all things protected by the First Amendment, film producers now had tremendous power to create thought-provoking, convention-challenging art, as well as sleazy, sensationalistic garbage. We’ve seen both in the 50 years since “The Miracle” decision.

The court’s ruling in 1952 continues to provide critical protection for the nation’s filmmakers. Earlier this month, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge, La., upheld a district judge’s decision dismissing a lawsuit against the makers of the film “Natural Born Killers.”

The lawsuit filed against filmmaker Oliver Stone and Time Warner Entertainment alleged that the violent movie inspired two people to emulate the crime spree depicted in the movie. The suit was filed by the family of a victim of one of the crimes.

Drawing on the principles established five decades earlier, Chief Judge Burrell Carter said the assailants’ “decision to imitate the characters of a film is more regrettable commentary on their own culpability than a danger of free expression requiring courts to chill such speech through civil penalties.”

Whatever the merits of “Natural Born Killers,” there’s no question that filmmaking would be severely curtailed if producers could be held accountable for scenes mimicked by criminals or the insane.

While some may cringe at the notion of extremely violent or sexually explicit films receiving constitutional protection, there’s no question that film can communicate important ideas and powerful messages. I was reminded of that in a recent conversation with actress Susan Sarandon.

Sarandon — who won the Academy Award for her role in “Dead Man Walking,” a thoughtful and provocative film about the death penalty — said it didn’t surprise her that many Americans are inclined to censor potentially offensive art and film.

She said people “should fear art, should fear film, should fear theater. This is where ideas happen. This is where somebody goes in a dark room and starts to watch something and their perspective can be completely questioned. … The very seeds of activism are empathy and imagination.”

There won’t be a special DVD release of “The Miracle” this month. There won’t be gala celebrations or red carpet events. Yet every film released since 1952 owes a debt to Burstyn, the film distributor who invested $75,000 to fight for freedom in film. His investment has paid ample dividends ever since.

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