Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson

Decided on May 26, 1952; 343 US 495


A. Issues Discussed: Free Press and Free Speech

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a state statute which permits the banning of motion picture films on the ground that they are sacrilegious violate the First Amendment?


A. Background:

"The issue here is the constitutionality, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, of a New York statute which permits the banning of motion picture films on the ground that they are 'sacrilegious.' That statute makes it 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 therefor of the education department...'

Appellant is a corporation engaged in the business of distributing motion pictures. It owns the exclusive rights to distribute throughout the United States a film produced in Italy entitled 'The Miracle.' On November 30, 1950, after having examined the picture, the motion picture division of the New York education department, acting under the statute quoted above, issued to appellant a license authorizing exhibition of 'The Miracle,' with English subtitles, as one part of a trilogy called 'Ways of Love.' Thereafter, for a period of approximately eight weeks, 'Ways of Love' was exhibited publicly in a motion picture theater in New York City under an agreement between appellant and the owner of the theater whereby appellant received a stated percentage of the admission price.

During this period, the New York State Board of Regents, which by statute is made the head of the education department, received 'hundreds of letters, telegrams, post cards, affidavits and other communications' both protesting against and defending the public exhibition of 'The Miracle.' The Chancellor of the Board of Regents requested three members of the Board to view the picture and to make a report to the entire Board. After viewing the film, this committee reported to the Board that in its opinion there was basis for the claim that the picture was 'sacrilegious.' Thereafter, on January 19, 1951, the Regents directed appellant to show cause, at a hearing to be held on January 30, why its license to show 'The Miracle' should not be rescinded on that ground. Appellant appeared at this hearing, which was conducted by the same three-member committee of the Regents which had previously viewed the picture, and challenged the jurisdiction of the committee and of the Regents to proceed with the case. With the consent of the committee, various interested persons and organizations submitted to it briefs and exhibits bearing upon the merits of the picture and upon the constitutional and statutory questions involved. On February 16, 1951, the Regents, after viewing 'The Miracle,' determined that it was 'sacrilegious' and for that reason ordered the Commissioner of Education to rescind appellant's license to exhibit the picture. The Commissioner did so.

...On appeal the New York Court of Appeals, two judges dissenting, affirmed the order of the Appellate Division..."

On appeal the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the New York Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union by Morris L. Ernst, Osmond K. Fraenkel, Arthur Garfield Hays, Herbert Monte Levy, Emanuel Redfield, Shad Polier, Will Maslow, Leo Pfeffer, Herman Seid and Eberhard P. Deutsch.

Ephraim S. London argued the cause and filed a brief for appellant.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the New York State Catholic Welfare Committee by Charles J. Tobin, Edmond B. Butler and Porter R. Chandler.

Charles A. Brind, Jr. and Wendell P. Brown, Solicitor General of New York, argued the cause for appellees. With them on the brief were Nathaniel L. Goldstein, Attorney General of New York, and Ruth Kessler Toch, Assistant Attorney General.

"...In a series of decisions beginning with Gitlow v. New York this Court held that the liberty of speech and of the press which the First Amendment guarantees against abridgment by the federal government is within the liberty safeguarded by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by state action. That principle has been followed and reaffirmed to the present day. ...[T]he present case is the first to present squarely to us the question whether motion pictures are within the ambit of protection which the First Amendment, through the Fourteenth, secures to any form of 'speech' or 'the press.' 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. The importance of motion pictures as an organ of public opinion is not lessened by the fact that they are designed to entertain as well as to inform....

It is urged that motion pictures do not fall within the First Amendment's aegis because their production, distribution, and exhibition is a large-scale business conducted for private profit. We cannot agree. That books, newspapers, and magazines are published and sold for profit does not prevent them from being a form of expression whose liberty is safeguarded by the First Amendment. We fail to see why operation for profit should have any different effect in the case of motion pictures.

It is further urged that motion pictures possess a greater capacity for evil, particularly among the youth of a community, than other modes of expression. Even if one were to accept this hypothesis, it does not follow that motion pictures should be disqualified from First Amendment protection. If there be capacity for evil it may be relevant in determining the permissible scope of community control, but it does not authorize substantially unbridled censorship such as we have here.

For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments....

To hold that liberty of expression by means of motion pictures is guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, however, is not the end of our problem. It does not follow that the Constitution requires absolute freedom to exhibit every motion picture of every kind at all times and all places. That much is evident from the series of decisions of this Court with respect to other media of communication of ideas. Nor does it follow that motion pictures are necessarily subject to the precise rules governing any other particular method of expression. Each method tends to present its own peculiar problems. But the basic principles of freedom of speech and the press, like the First Amendment's command, do not vary. Those principles, as they have frequently been enunciated by this Court, make freedom of expression the rule. There is no justification in this case for making an exception to that rule.

...[F]rom the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the New York Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • T. Clark Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • F. Vinson Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • H. Black Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • W. Douglas Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • H. Burton Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • S. Minton Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • S. Reed Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • F. Frankfurter Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • R. Jackson Pro (Joined concurring opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus, urged reversal of the New York Court of Appeals' judgment; the Supreme Court reversed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.