Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495; 72 S. Ct. 777; 96 L. Ed. 1098 (1952)

Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495; 72 S. Ct. 777; 96 L. Ed. 1098 (1952)

Facts—A highly controversial film, The Miracle, produced in Italy and starring Anna Magnani, had at first been licensed for showing in New York and had been exhibited in the city for approximately eight weeks. Public reaction resulted in the license being withdrawn on the ground that the movie was “sacrilegious.” The distributor of the motion picture brought action in the state courts and ultimately in the Supreme Court of the United States to attempt to force Wilson, New York State Commissioner of Education, to grant the license.

Question—Is the New York statute that permits state authorities to ban films on the ground that they are “sacrilegious” contrary to the First and Fourteenth Amendments?


ReasonsJ. Clark (9–0). Motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas. This function is not lessened because they are designed to entertain as well as to inform. Also, their production, distribution, and exhibition for profit do not affect the application of the liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment any more than in the case of books, newspapers, and magazines. Expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guarantee of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. A state cannot ban a film on the basis of a censor’s view that it is “sacrilegious.” Such a standard is too vague. From the standpoint of freedom of speech and press, the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views sufficiently distasteful to them to justify prior restraint upon the expression of those views.

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