Joseph Burstyn, Inc. vs. Wilson, 343 U. S. 495 (1952), was a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court which largely marked the decline of motion picture censorship in the United States. A review of related American jurisprudence shows that the case was decided correctly and consistent with principles of First Amendment rights and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that our courts have laid down and followed over the years.
The main issue in this case involves the application of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, of a New York statute that permits the banning of motion picture films on the ground that they are “sacrilegious. ” The statute also mentions that it is unlawful “to exhibit, or to sell, lease or lend for exhibition at any place of amusement for pay or in connection with any business in the state of New York, any motion picture film or reel [with specified exceptions not relevant here], unless there is at the time in full force and effect a valid license or permit therefore of the education department.
” The case was filed by Joseph Burstyn in response to the rescission of the license for the exhibition of the film. The New York State Board of Regents viewed the film entitled “The Miracle” and found it to be sacrilegious because of the plot of the film which depicts “Saint Joseph” as a man who villainously impregnates “Nanni”, a disturbed peasant who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary.
Burstyn filed his case on three (3) grounds, namely (1) that the statute violates the Fourteenth Amendment as a prior restraint upon freedom of speech and of the press; (2) that it is invalid under the same Amendment as a violation of the guaranty of separate church and state and as a prohibition of the free exercise of religion; and, (3) that the term “sacrilegious” is so vague and indefinite as to offend due process.
The Courts reversed the original decision, stating “that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments a state may not ban a film on the basis of a censor’s conclusion that it is sacrilegious. ” The court reached its decision by explaining the importance of motion pictures as a significant medium in the communication of ideas. That the movie was “sacrilegious” is not enough to warrant prior restraint. The word “sacrilegious” is too vague as to make a finding that the expression being considered is within the purview of expression that the State has a right to restrain.
In Winters v. New York, 333 U. S. 507 (1948), a statute prohibiting publication or possession “of any book, pamphlet, magazine, newspaper or other printed paper… accounts of criminal deeds, or pictures, or stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime” was found to be unconstitutional because the expression sought to be restrained was protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The words in the statute were considered vague and indefinite that its scope of application would punish expression within the protection of the First and Fourth Amendments.
The statute was so vague that “it leaves open, therefore, the widest conceivable inquiry, the scope of which no one can foresee and the result of which no one can foreshadow or adequately guard against” and this cannot be permitted especially if fundamental rights under the Constitution are at stake. Moreover, freedom of expression is the rule and absent any sufficient justification on the part of the State to restrain it, such right must be upheld.
The State cannot restrain speech or expression others might find distasteful, even if such speech tends to attack a particular religious view whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures. If the State wishes to exercise prior restraint upon a particular expression, its action is tainted with a presumption of constitutional invalidity and the burden rests upon it to show that such restraint is justified.
This principle is supported by the case of New York Times Co. vs. United States, 403 U. S. 713 (1971) wherein the United States sought to enjoin the New York Times from publishing a classified study entitled “History of U. S. Decision-Making Process on Viet Nam Policy. ” Justice Black, in his concurring opinion, highlighted the importance and essential role of freedom of speech and expression in a democratic society. He discussed the history of the adoption of the First Amendment and showed that free speech is protected in order to allow the press to censure the Government and that free speech is essential to the free exchange of ideas that would expose to the people the workings of the Government.
That the First Amendment was worded in a way to act as a mandate towards Congress not to pass any law abridging the freedom of the press rests a heavy burden on the part of the Government to show justification for doing what was otherwise mandated upon it. That the state has to show a compelling interest in restraining free speech is evident in the case of Cohen v. California, 403 U. S. 15 (1971). In this case, Cohen was convicted for violating the California Penal Code for allegedly offensive conduct. He wore a shirt bearing the words “Fuck the Draft” in a Los Angeles Courthouse.
In reversing the decision of the lower courts which found his conduct offensive and having a tendency to induce violence, the Court found at the most an “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance [which] is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression,” citing Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist. , 393 U. S. 503 (1969). That Cohen used peaceful means in sending his message to people is without doubt, the mere wearing of a shirt with words like “Fuck the Draft” does not justify the State’s action in punishing the act as offensive with the subsequent effect of chilling First Amendment Rights.
As held in the case of Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, 402 U. S. 415 (1971), “so long as the means are peaceful, the communication need not meet standards of acceptability. ” It is conceded that motion pictures can be subjected to review by a censorship board and this is not necessarily unconstitutional, as held in Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago, 365 U. S. 43 (1961). But as enunciated in the case of Freedman v. Maryland 380 U. S. 51 (1965), procedural safeguards must first be met before censorship is allowed.
First, the burden rests upon the censor to proving that the film is expression not protected by the Constitution. Second, “any restraint prior to judicial review must be limited to preservation of the status quo and for the shortest period compatible with sound judicial procedure. ” Lastly, final judicial determination of obscenity must be promptly made. The Government was not able to prove in the Burstyn case that the restraint was justified.
As discussed above, it is not within the authority of the Government to punish acts which might be distasteful to some of its citizens or which attacks one’s religious view if the speech is protected under the Constitution and no violent means were used in uttering such expression or speech. Moreover, the act of the board in canceling Burstyn’s license is considered prior restraint in that it chills freedom of speech. The procedural safeguard of requiring a judicial determination first before actual restraint of the speech violates the principle laid down in the Freedman vs. Maryland case.
The court was therefore correct in striking down the act of the board as unconstitutional. In sum, the case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. vs. Wilson was decided by the court consistent with jurisprudence and the following well-settled principles: 1) vague statutes which punish expression or speech as offensive are void for the tendency to include in their application protected speech; 2) prior restraint is presumed unconstitutional and the burden rests upon the Government to show that a compelling interest justifies such restraint; and lastly 3) procedural safeguards must first be complied with before censorship becomes valid.
REFERENCES: Cohen v. California, 403 U. S. 15 (1971) Freedman v. Maryland 380 U. S. 51 (1965) Joseph Burstyn, Inc. vs. Wilson, 343 U. S. 495 (1952) New York Times Co. vs. United States, 403 U. S. 713 (1971) Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, 402 U. S. 415 (1971) Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago, 365 U. S. 43 (1961) Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist. , 393 U. S. 503 (1969) Winters v. New York, 333 U. S. 507 (1948)