Law School Case Brief
Joseph Burstyn v. Wilson - 343 U.S. 495, 72 S. Ct. 777 (1952)
Expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Joseph Burstyn, Inc. was a corporation engaged in the business of distributing motion pictures. It owned the exclusive rights to distribute throughout the United States a film produced in Italy entitled "The Miracle." On November 30, 1950, after having examined the picture, the motion picture division of the New York education department issued to Joseph Burstyn, Inc. a license authorizing exhibition of "The Miracle," with English subtitles, as one part of a trilogy called "Ways of Love.” During the weeks the film was shown, the New York State Board of Regents, which by statute was made the head of the education department, received several complaints alleging that the film was sacrilegious. The Regents, after viewing "The Miracle," determined that it was "sacrilegious" and acting upon a New York statute, which permitted the banning of motion picture films on the ground that they were “sacrilegious,” ordered the Commissioner of Education to rescind appellant's license to exhibit the motion picture. Thereafter, Joseph Burstyn, Inc. instituted a case to question the validity of the New York Statute. According to Joseph Burstyn, Inc., the statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment as a prior restraint upon freedom of speech, and of the press of the guaranty of separate church and state and as a prohibition of the free exercise of religion. Joseph Burstyn, Inc. also contended that the term "sacrilegious" was vague and indefinite as to offend due process. The Appellate Division rejected all of it’s contentions and upheld the Regents' determination. On appeal, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the order of the Appellate Division. The petitioner raised the issue to the Supreme Court.
Was the New York Statute an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech and a free press?
The Court concluded that expression by means of motion pictures was included within the free speech and free press guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court found that from the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, the state had no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them that was sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. The Court held that under the First andFourteenth Amendments, a state may not ban a film on the basis of a censor's conclusion that it was "sacrilegious."
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