Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago
Decided on January 23, 1961; 365 US 43

Movie company sues City of Chicago for requiring permission to exhibit films


A. Issues Discussed: 1st Amendment (speech, press, assembly)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did a Chicago city ordinance that required submission of motion pictures to city officials for approval prior to their public exhibition, and forbid their exhibition unless they met certain standards, violate the First Amendment?

A. Background:

Petitioner Times Film Corporation owned the exclusive right to exhibit the film Don Juan in Chicago.  A Chicago city ordinance required that anybody who wished to publicly exhibit a film within city limits submit the film to the office of the commissioner of police and pay a license fee. The office of the commissioner of police was allowed to refuse to issue a permit to show the film if it determined that the film did not meet certain standards.  A denial of a permit to show a film could be appealed to the mayor and the mayor's decision would then be final.

Petitioner paid the license fee, but refused to submit the film Don Juan to the office of the commissioner of police for examination. After Petitioner was refused a permit to show the film, the corporation brought suit in federal court seeking to prevent the city from interfering with the exhibition of the film.  Petitioner argued that the provision of the ordinance requiring submission of the film constitutes a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The court dismissed Times Film Corporation's suit on the grounds that it did not have jurisdiction over the matter. Petitioner appealed that ruling to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit which also denied that the corporation had jurisdiction. Subsequently, Petitioner sought review in the United States Supreme Court and the high court granted certiorari.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Felix J. Bilgrey and Abner J. Mikva argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner.

Robert J. Collins and Sydney R. Drebin argued the cause for respondents. With them on the brief was John C. Melaniphy.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Emanuel Redfield filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, as amicus curiae, urging reversal.

"[T]here is not a word in the record as to the nature and content of 'Don Juan.' We are left entirely in the dark in this regard, as were the city officials and the other reviewing courts. Petitioner claims that the nature of the film is irrelevant, and that even if this film contains the basest type of pornography, or incitement to riot, or forceful overthrow of orderly government, it may nonetheless be shown without prior submission for examination. The challenge here is to the censor's basic authority; it does not go to any statutory standards employed by the censor or procedural requirements as to the submission of the film.

In this perspective we consider the prior decisions of this Court touching on the problem. Beginning over a third of a century ago in Gitlow v. New York, they have consistently reserved for future decision possible situations in which the claimed First Amendment privilege might have to give way to the necessities of the public welfare.   It has never been held that liberty of speech is absolute.  Nor has it been suggested that all previous restraints on speech are invalid...

Chicago emphasizes here its duty to protect its people against the dangers of obscenity in the public exhibition of motion pictures. To this argument petitioner's only answer is that regardless of the capacity for, or extent of, such an evil, previous restraint cannot be justified. With this we cannot agree. It is not for this Court to limit the State in its selection of the remedy it deems most effective to cope with such a problem, absent, of course, a showing of unreasonable strictures on individual liberty resulting from its application in particular circumstances.  We, of course, are not holding that city officials may be granted the power to prevent the showing of any motion picture they deem unworthy of a license.

As to what may be decided when a concrete case involving a specific standard provided by this ordinance is presented, we intimate no opinion. The petitioner has not challenged all - or for that matter any - of the ordinance's standards. Naturally we could not say that every one of the standards, including those which Illinois' highest court has found sufficient, is so vague on its face that the entire ordinance is void. At this time we say no more than this - that we are dealing only with motion pictures and, even as to them, only in the context of the broadside attack presented on this record."

Held: the judgment is affirmed.

Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Clark, T. Con (Wrote majority opinion) 
  • Frankfurter, F. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Whittaker, C. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Warren, E. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion; joined Douglas's dissenting opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Joined Warren's dissenting opinion; joined Douglas's dissenting opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion; joined Warren's dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined Warren's dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the United States Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.