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1896 Movies arrive in the US and soon attract large and enthusiastic audiences; critics assail them, including Thomas Edison's landmark 1896 film, The Kiss, as a threat to morality.
1907 Chicago enacts the first movie censorship law in America. Cities and states around the nation create local censorships boards in the following years, resulting in a variety of different rules and standards.
1909 The National Board of Censorship, representing mainstream Protestantism, is created after complaints about "indecent" films causes movie theaters in New York City to close. By the 1920s, most Protestant critics of movies are calling for federal regulation of the industry.
1914 The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which in 1906 condemned the influence of movies on the health, well-being and morals of impressionable youth, begins to lobby aggressively for government regulation of films. The WCTU claims that films are "addictive," that they glorify war and violence, and that they cause crime, delinquency and immoral behavior.
1914 Margaret Sanger is indicted under federal obscenity laws for her book A Woman Rebel. After additional indictments and arrests, she flees to Europe, to return later and open the first birth control clinic in New York.
1915 In Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, the Supreme Court holds that movies are not protected by the First Amendment. The ruling allows state and local boards to continue censoring films.
1915 The NAACP and others protest against Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's film about the Civil War and Reconstruction, which incites riots in Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. It will become the most banned film in U.S. history because of its controversial racial content.
1918 The Sedition Act and Espionage Act are passed, making it illegal for Americans to publicly criticize the United States government, the American flag, U.S. military, and the Constitution
1919 The Supreme Court affirms the conviction of Eugene V. Debs for publicly opposing America's involvement in World War I. Over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists are arrested in a series of raids conducted by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover.
1922 The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), later to become the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is formed, led by Former Postmaster General William H. Hays.
1925 The WCTU decides that movies are the most important cultural influence on youth and that the MPPDA is not doing enough to regulate their content. It forms a Motion Picture Department to press for government regulation.
1925 John T. Scopes goes to trial in a Dayton, Tennessee courtroom, charged with violating state law for teaching evolution in his high school biology class.
1927 Independent film exhibitors, frustrated by movie studio rules that give them little say over what films they show, create the Allied States Association, and join other critics in calling for government regulation.
1930 MPPDA creates A Code to Maintain Social and Community Values in the Production of Silent, Synchronized and Talking Motion Pictures, also called the Production Code or the Hays Code. It condemns movies that "lower the moral standards" of viewers and promises that "the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin." Movie producers pay little attention to the Code, however.
1930 Mary Ware Dennett is convicted of obscenity for distributing "The Sex Side of Life," an educational pamphlet about sex and reproduction. The conviction is later reversed.
1934 The Catholic Legion of Decency is formed. An estimated 10 million Catholics sign a pledge "to refrain from viewing all objectionable movies or attending any theater that showed such films." However, the Legion advocates self-regulation, not government regulation, because of concern for separation of church and state. The risk of Catholic boycotts, however, provides an economic incentive to placate Catholic critics.
1934 Joseph I. Breen becomes head of the new Production Code Authority, which enforces the Hays Code. Under Breen, who serves for 20 years, the PCA is closely allied with the Legion of Decency. During this period, movie production companies are essentially required to join the PCA, and any company that releases a film without its seal of approval is subject to a fine.
1934 Random House, the publisher of Joyce's novel Ulysses, challenges the ban on the book and wins a ruling from the federal appeals court that the book is not obscene.
1945 Will Hays resigns as head of the MPPDA and is succeeded by former head of the US Chamber of Commerce, Eric Johnston, who renames the organization the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
1945 In Thomas v. Collins, the Supreme Court invalidates a Texas statute requiring union officials to obtain a license before addressing union members, holding that the statute violates the First Amendment.
1946 In Hannegan v. Esquire, the Supreme Court rules that Esquire Magazine can be distributed through the mail, rejecting the U.S Postmaster General's claim that it is obscene.
1950 In the first of many accusations, Senator Joe McCarthy tells a women's club in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he has a list of 205 communist sympathizers who work in the State Department. The McCarthy hearings soon focus on Hollywood, and ultimately result in a "blacklist" against admitted or suspected communist sympathizers or "fellow travelers."
1952 In Burstyn v. Wilson, the Supreme Court strikes down a ban on Roberto Rosselini's film, The Miracle, which the New York Board of Regents had found "sacrilegious." For the first time, the Supreme Court holds that "motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas," entitled to some First Amendment protection.
1955 – 1956 The Legion of Decency and the MPAA begin to clash: The Legion approves Man with a Golden Arm, including a depiction of drug use, but the MPAA does not, while Elia Kazan's film Baby Doll is approved by MPAA but condemned by the Legion for its erotic content.
1956 MPAA initiates a review of the Production Code, which results in loosening its prohibitions on the portrayal of drug use, abortion, miscegenation, prostitution, and abortion. The revised code added a prohibition on blasphemy and ridiculing the clergy.
1957 In Roth vs. United States, the Supreme Court rules that sexually explicit content is protected by the First Amendment unless it lacks "redeeming social importance."
1959 In holding that the film version of Lady Chatterly's Lover is entitled to First Amendment protection, the Supreme Court finds that its sympathetic portrayal of adultery is not obscene.
1961 In Times Film Corp. v. Chicago, the Supreme Court says that Chicago's licensing scheme, which required film exhibitors to submit films for police review before screening, is not a prior restraint on speech, leaving courts to rule in individual cases whether the result is constitutional.
1963 Comedian Lenny Bruce is repeatedly arrested for performances labeled obscene and blasphemous.
1961 – 1965 Appellate courts at the state and federal level consistently reject efforts to censor films.
1966 Jack Valenti, former assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, becomes head of the MPAA and immediately begins to revise the Production Code. He creates the category "SMA – Suggested for Mature Audiences" for "blatant" material. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the first film designated SMA.
1966 Rather than cut nude scenes from Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni chooses to release it without an MPAA seal.
1968 MPAA institutes a nationwide system of voluntary ratings based on the viewer's age, in response to continuing objections to the Production Code, and to court rulings indicating that different First Amendment standards apply to adults and minors. The original ratings are G for General Audiences, M for Mature Audiences, R for 16 and above, unless accompanied by a parent or guardian, and X, under 16 not admitted.
1969 In Street v. New York, the Supreme Court holds that the First Amendment protects the right to "cast contempt upon" the flag.
1969 Midnight Cowboy wins three Academy Awards. It is the first and only X-rated film to receive an Oscar for Best Picture.
1971 The Pentagon Papers, describing the US involvement in Vietnam, are published by The New York Times. The government charges the Times with violating the Espionage Act and seeks to enjoin further publication. The Supreme Court rejects the government's argument and holds that the injunction violates the First Amendment.
1972 In Miller v. California, the Supreme Court defines obscenity as based in part on community standards.
1978 In Smith v. Collins, the Supreme Court upholds the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois.
1978 In FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, the Supreme Court upholds the FCC's determination that George Carlin's "seven dirty words" monologue was indecent.
1970s – 1980s The X rating, which was not trademarked by the MPAA, comes to be equated with pornography. Newspapers and TV refuse advertisements for X-rated movies, and some theaters refuse to screen X-rated movies.
1981 Students rally to challenge book banning in their local school library in Island Trees, New York, and win reinstatement of many titles, including, Slaughterhouse Five, Black Boy, Soul on Ice, and The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers.
1982 In NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., the Supreme Court rules that the NAACP's non-violent civil rights boycotts are protected by the First Amendment.
1988 In Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the US Supreme Court rules that student journalists may be censored by school officials.
1989 The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) comes under attack. Senators Al D'Amato and Jesse Helms argue that taxpayers' money should not be used to support offensive art. In 1998, the Supreme Court upholds the NEA's right to take "standards of decency" into account in making grants to artists. The NEA phases out grants to individual artists shortly thereafter.
1990 The X rating is replaced by NC-17 to differentiate art film from pornography. Nonetheless, religious activists pressure large video chains and retailers, such as Blockbuster and Wal-Mart, not to stock NC-17 titles.
1990 2 Live Crew face obscenity charges in Florida for "Nasty as I Want to Be."
1991 In Rust v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court upholds restrictions on providing information about abortion in federally-funded family planning clinics.
1992 Pressured by police associations, Time Warner removes Rapper Ice T's song "Cop Killer" from his album, Body Count.
1993 In Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Sch. Dist., the Supreme Court holds that public schools must give religious groups equal access to their facilities.
1996 In Reno vs. ACLU, the US Supreme Court declares that speech online is protected by the First Amendment to the same extent as printed material.
2006 No film rated NC-17 has been a major box office success.
While MPAA membership is voluntary, all seven major Hollywood studios submit their films to its rating board. Most cineplex chains, retail giants, and home-video chains only show films that have an MPAA rating. Films that are not rated are not shown in any MPAA-affiliated theatres. In many markets, adults have little or no access to NC-17 or non-rated films.
Censored and Challenged Films: A Selection
Monkey Business, 1931. The sexual innuendo in Groucho Marx's films, coupled with his suggestive delivery, was often the target of censors.
She Done Him Wrong, 1933. Like Groucho Marx, Mae West's racy dialog — "Why don't you come up sometime and see me. I'm home every evening" — and cheeky delivery were often the target of censors. They were also partially responsible for the strengthening of the morals-focused Hays Code in 1934.
Casablanca, 1942. Censors demanded changes in the story of the affair between Rick and Ilsa, requiring that Ilsa's husband Victor be deceased, instead of awayon business, to remove any suggestion of impropriety.
The African Queen, 1951. Among the many scenes and exchanges that the censors objected to in this classic were an "immoral relationship" between a missionary and a hard-edged boat captain during WWI, the "questionable taste" of the sound of stomach-growlings, and the film's depiction of "ridiculed missionaries" which may be offensive "to people of serious religious conviction." Also, kissing should not be "passionate, lustful, or open-mouthed."
A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951. References to Blanche Dubois' infidelities were excised from the original 1951 version. The censors were also concerned with the moral ambiguity of the characters.
Les Amants (The Lovers) 1958. It was not so much the graphic portrayal of sex in this Malle classic, since the film only shows a glimpse of the protagonist's naked breast, but rather its celebration of adulterous liaisons. Ohio enforced an obscenity law to ban the film, but in 1968 the Supreme Court reversed the obscenity conviction of the Ohio theater that exhibited the film.
Bonnie and Clyde, 1967. This film, released shortly after the end of the Hays Code, was notable for its portrayal of graphic violence. Critics and the general public were concerned that the film glamorized violence because the main characters were highly engaging and likeable.
The Last Picture Show, 1971. This film, featuring a scene of Cybil Shepherd skinny-dipping, was banned in Phoenix in 1973 for violating a state obscenity statute. A federal court later held that the film was not obscene.
Carnal Knowledge, 1971. Although the film explored highly nuanced themes and characters, the censors were blinded by the titillating title and suggestion of sex. In 1972, the film was seized and a theater manager was arrested in Georgia. The Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction.
Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, 1975. In 1994, the owner and manager of the Pink Pyramid, a small gay and lesbian bookstore in Cincinnati, faced fines and prison sentences for obscenity, after undercover police rented a videotape of the film. The case was eventually settled when the prosecutor dropped six charges and the store agreed to plead no contest and pay a $500 fine.
The Tin Drum, 1979. Oklahoma City police confiscated the film from video stores, the public library, and private homes in June 1997, in response to complaints from Oklahomans for Children and Families (OCAF). A federal judge held that the film does not contain child pornography, and that it is constitutionally protected because of its artistic value.
If You Love This Planet, 1982. This Canadian documentary on the medical and social effects of nuclear war triggered concern because it interspersed short clips from Ronald Reagan movies. After the U.S. Justice Department labeled the film "political propaganda," the film gained notoriety, eventually leading to an Oscar for Best Short Documentary for director Terri Nash. In her acceptance speech, she thanked the U.S. Government for so effectively "advertising" her film.
Last Temptation of Christ, 1988. This film spurred boycotts over the depiction of a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Protests outside theaters read: "Don't Crucify Christ Again," "Stop This Attack on Christianity," and "Scripture Not Scripts."
Natural Born Killers, 1994. This film's graphic portrayal of seemingly random acts of violence caused Blockbuster, K-Mart and Wal-Mart to refuse to stock the Director's Cut of the film.
Censored: Wielding the Red Pen. 2000. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collection Library. 8-25-06. http://www.lib.virginia.edu/small/exhibits/censored/film.html
Couvares, Francis G. Movie Censorship and American Culture. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.
Foestel, Herbert N. Banned in the U.S.S.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Green, Jonathan. The Encyclopedia of Censorship. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1990.
Heins, Marjorie. Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America's Censorship Wars. New York: The New Press, 1993.
Hull, Mary E. Censorship In America. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1999.
Moffett, James. Storms in the Mountains: A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.