Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly


Through the lenses of both history and the law, this Note examines the parallel transformation of the First Amendment and the medium of film. When the Supreme Court first addressed the censorship of moving pictures in 1915, the Court unanimously rejected film as mere "spectacle" unworthy of constitutional protection. However, in 1952, the Court revisited the same issue and unanimously overturned its prior decision-moving pictures were now protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The reversal ended an era of censorship and marked a new understanding of both speech and film in the law. Neither a fortuitous nor an inevitable change, the Court's 1952 ruling was the byproduct of unique social, political, and technological changes. This Note examines those unique historical forces to understand this change in the law.

As the United States matured between two world wars, domestic social unrest, and economic booms and collapses, the meaning of the First Amendment changed. Though once limited to specific kinds of writing and oration, the Supreme Court expanded the First Amendment during the first half of the twentieth century to protect various different forms of speech, including literature and entertainment. At the same time, the medium of film evolved technologically and socially. What began as cheap entertainment for children and immigrant workers grew into a powerful tool for political propaganda and artistic expression popular across all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes. Against this new backdrop, the Supreme Court's view of both the First Amendment and film transformed: That which was once mere spectacle became a powerful form of expression and speech.