In the 1950s, cases went to the Supreme Court over state licensing laws that allowed government administrative agencies to refuse licenses to show movies they considered objectionable. In Ohio, a license was refused for a movie based on Richard Wright's Native Son, a book about a black youth living in poverty in the 1930s. That case, and another out of New York, led the Supreme Court to overturn such licensing laws as an infringement on First Amendment rights of free expression in Superior Films v. Department of Education. This publicity photo from a Broadway production of Native Son shows the main character Bigger Thomas, played here by Canada Lee. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).
The Supreme Court’s unanimous per curiam opinion in Superior Films v. Department of Education, 346 U.S. 587 (1954) — which also covered Commercial Pictures Corp. v. Regents of the University of the State of New York — overturned state laws that allowed administrative agencies to refuse licenses to movies they considered objectionable.
Court overturned state censorship of movies
The Court’s single-sentence opinion cited the Court’s ruling in Burstyn v. Wilson (1952), in which the Court struck down a state law restricting “blasphemous” films.
Justice Douglas said books, television, movies should be free from prior restraint
Douglas tied the Court’s ruling to its decision in Near v. Minnesota (1931), applying the presumption against prior restraint of newspaper publication to books, theater, television, and movies. “In this Nation every writer, actor, or producer, no matter what medium of expression he may use, should be freed from the censor,” he wrote.
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.Send Feedback on this article