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Film Censorship Impedes on Freedom of Speech

by Julian Spivey

            The First Amendment of the United States constitution gives people the freedom of speech. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, film applies as free speech (Sova VII). In an archived clip from NBC Nightly News in 1978, which appears in Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary on film censorship “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” Tom Brokaw said, “The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) was created in 1968 to stop film censorship in favor of a ratings system. However, the MPAA does in fact censor films (Dick). According to Dick’s documentary the MPAA seems to censor sex over violence in film.

            On February 23, 1915 the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision denying film the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech in the case Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio. (Bernstein 16) This decision would affect film for nearly the first half of its existence. The Supreme Court gave the power to determine what could and couldn’t be shown to the public in films to each individual state. Bernard Carr’s 1947 film “Curley” was banned in Memphis because it portrayed white and black children sharing the same classroom. Some states like Ohio banned films because they portrayed girls smoking cigarettes in public and some states like Pennsylvania banned films for “duration of kisses” (Sova VI). Because the Supreme Court gave the right to the states to deem what could be shown and not shown in their respective states certain states were harder on films than others, which also meant that some things were being seen by the public that people thought were controversial.

In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was formed by film studios. Former Postmaster General William H. Hays was chosen to head the MPPDA (Filmsite).  The MPPDA created a list of “don’ts” and “be carefuls” for film. There were 11 “don’ts”, which included, prohibition of profanity, suggestive nudity, use of illegal drugs, sexual perversion, white slavery, miscegenation, sex hygiene and venereal diseases, childbirth, child sex organs, ridicule of clergy, and willful offense to any nation, race, or creed. There were 26 things listed on the “be carefuls” list of things to be cautious about using. Among these 26 “be carefuls” were excessive brutality, murder and rape, excessive and lustful kissing and the depiction of men and women sleeping in the same bed. The MPPDA’s regulations were largely ignored because there weren’t enforcements that were effective (Filmsite).

However, in 1934 the American Catholic church started the League of Decency. The League of Decency “encouraged the production of moral films and condemned any film with an immoral message” (Filmsite). The League of Decency threatening to boycott movies led to the establishment of the much stronger Production Code Administration Office (PCA). Joseph Breen was appointed to regulate films. Now, film scripts had to be approved before production and films had to be granted a seal of approval for the film to be released, or else they’d face a substantial fine of $25,000 (Filmsite). The PCA would be the regulating force behind cinema until 1966. However, it would see a major event in 1952 that would ultimately lead to its death.

Roberto Rossellini’s short Italian film “The Miracle” was set to be released in American theatres in 1952. The film was censored because it was deemed “sacrilegious.” The film was the story of a poor peasant woman named Nanni. When she daydreams about being transported to heaven she comes across a stranger. Nanni imagines the stranger to be Saint Joseph. The stranger gets her drunk and seduces the women. When she becomes pregnant she believes that she is carrying Christ. (Sova 197-198.) The censorship of “The Miracle” was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court unanimously decided that “sacrilege was too vague a censorship standard to be permitted under the First Amendment. This overturned the 1915 decision and basically “freed film from federal censorship” (Filmsite).

The MPAA was created with its system of ratings two years after the “official shutdown” of the PCA (Bernstein 239). Jack Valenti was named President of the MPAA and served for 38 years until former U.S. congressman Dan Glickman took over for him in 2004. The MPAA started up the ratings system to help parents figure out which films that children should and should not see. The MPAA has stated many times over its existence that it isn’t a censorship board, but the fact is that they do still censor films (Dick). An obvious case of film censorship by the MPAA was when they forced director Stanley Kubrick to superimpose black computer character images over “a few fleeting moments of explicit sex during a lugubrious orgy scene” in his final film “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) in order to obtain an R rating. (Sova VIII) Kubrick relented because every director knows that the dreaded NC-17 rating is a killer when it comes to box office profits.

The current status of film censorship is MPAA’s policies, which director Kirby Dick finds out in “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” aren’t specific or listed. According to the documentary, ratings for films are chosen by an anonymous group of parents. In the documentary Joan Graves, who is the head of the Classification and Rating Administration for the MPAA, said that the MPAA ratings board is comprised of parents with children from 5 to 17 years old. It would seem that parents would be a bias group when it comes to film ratings. The MPAA raters aren’t objective when it comes to the way they rate films according to “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” The MPAA seems to favor violence over sex when it comes to ratings. Explicit violence seems to always get R ratings, while explicit sex receives the dreaded NC-17 rating the majority of the time.

In 1998 when Kimberly Peirce’s film “Boys Don’t Cry” came back to her with a NC-17 rating she was stunned. The MPAA said that there were three things objectionable about the film that garnered the NC-17 rating. Those three things were: a scene involving homosexual oral sex, a scene involving anal rape, and a scene involving an orgasm that “lasts too long.” The MPAA, however, was fine with a scene where a character in the film is shot through the head rather violently. The MPAA gives explicitly violent films like Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” R ratings, while a film like Wayne Kramer’s “The Cooler” (2003) is given a NC-17 rating simply for showing the pubic hair of actress Maria Bello (Dick).

Dick’s film also states that scenes involving females engaged in sexual acts are treated differently than ones with males engaged in sexual acts. The MPAA allowed a masturbation scene by a male in Sam Mendes’s film “American Beauty” to remain in the film with a R rating, while a similar scene involving a female in Jamie Babbit’s film “But I’m a Cheerleader” was told to be removed or the film would receive a NC-17. A scene in Barbet Schroeder’s film “Single White Female” where a male is receiving oral sex was given an R rating, where as a scene in “Boys Don’t Cry” where a female is receiving oral sex was given a NC-17 (Dick). Filmmakers are also not given a list of what can and can’t appear in films and the MPAA isn’t consistent enough with their rulings for directors to know what is and isn’t acceptable. Sharon Stone showing pubic hair in Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” was alright for an R rating, but Bello’s pubic hair gets a NC-17. (Dick)  Not only is the MPAA censoring film, but it is also unfair and sexist in the way they censor film. However, if a director and studio is looking to make money on a film they must receive an R rating, which means abiding by the MPAA’s regulations. Box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian states in “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” that, “Theatres and people don’t see NC-17 films. The difference between R and NC-17 could be millions of dollars.”

There are of course those opposing viewpoints that believe that film should be strictly regulated and some even believe it isn’t regulated enough. The parents of children and religious groups seem to be the ones who advocate stricter regulations and censorship. Philip Anshutz mentioned that 2,146 R rated movies were released between 2002 and 2006. In the same time period the Hollywood movie industry released 137 movies that were rated G and 252 movies that were rated PG. In that four year span from 2002-2006 Hollywood released more than five times as many R-rated movies as it did movies rated G or PG (Anshutz). However, of the fifty highest money ranking films of all-time, not a single one of them has an R rating. (Filmsite) So, some advocates for regulation wonder why there are so many R rated films, when G and PG rated films fare better at the box office.

Some people believe it’s perfectly acceptable to censor films. Nick Gillespie wrote about a case in which a company called, CleanFlicks, based in Utah was deleting sex, violence, and foul language from movies and then re-selling them to their customers, many who preferred buying these edited copies for religious reasons. The most widely reported edit of any movie was the deletion of Kate Winslet’s exposed breast in “Titanic.” Because the movies that CleanFlicks were editing were all copy written, what the company was doing was deemed illegal and was damaging creative expression (Gillespie).