What shocked the censors! (1933)

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In 1915 the United States Supreme Court delivered a decision which deals with the above discrimination.* This decision initially reiterates the principle that "conduct alone is amenable to law" whereas "opinion is free". Thereupon the decision points out that there is a distinction between the press and the motion picture. Motion pictures are not, according to this opinion, organs of public opinion. On the contrary, "they are mere representations of events, of ideas and sentiments published and known; vivid, useful, and entertaining, no doubt, but as we have said, capable of evil, having power for it, the greater because of their attractiveness and manner of exhibition." And, on the basis of this reasoning the Supreme Court declared that the State of Ohio had, in its censorship law, acted within its powers of constitutional government. By the same logic, newspapers might lose their freedom if they found ways of presenting the same topics more entertainingly, more attractively. The problem is far more complicated than the above argument allows; it is also more simple. As stated above, everything which is seen, heard, felt, and even imagined has power to influence behavior either for good or for evil. (What is seen and heard is probably less influential than that which is felt and imagined, as Anatole France long ago pointed out. "All through my life", he wrote in Pen gum Island, "the demon of lust has tempted me in various ways, but his strongest temptations did not come to me from meeting a woman, however beautiful and fragrant she was. They came to me from the image of an absent woman.") Let us admit in forthright manner that the movies along with newspa- pers, magazines, billboards, radios, and all the other and increasing instruments of communication influence behavior in various ways. On the side of those who contend for freedom and liberty, for example, let us assume that the re- cently exhibited film, I am a fugitive from a Chain Gang, affected public opinion to such a degree as to defeat the efforts of the State of Georgia to extradite Robert Elliot Burns, an escaped convict, from the State of New Jersey. Where, now, is the right conduct? Many persons who probably favor censorship in principle found themselves happy to know that no further cruelties were to be inflicted upon this man, but they must also have known that in entertaining this feeling they were condoning a violation of law. But, so they may have excused themselves, the chain gang is an evil institution and should be abolished, and it would be inhuman to allow this man to be returned to such cruelty. And, thus the complex problem of right and wrong, good and evil, stands in all its relativity. So must it always be, since right and wrong can never be trustworthy criteria preconceived in the abstract; right and wrong are qualities inherent in the situation. We are not prepared to express an opinion regarding the voluminous study recently published by the Motion Picture Research Council. It assumes to be scientific and impartial and required five years of painstaking labor. The conclusions at which this study arrives will, no doubt, be reversed by the forthcom- ing study conducted under the auspices of the National Board of Review. The first study concentrates its attention upon the harmful effects of motion pictures * Mutual Film Corporation vs. Ohio Industrial Commission; (1915); 35 Sup. Ct. 387. 10