Utilitarianism (noun): A theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number — Merriam Webster
Paternalism (noun): A policy or practice of treating or governing people in a fatherly manner, especially by providing for their needs without giving them rights or responsibilities. — The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition
American-made film exports rose from 36 million in 1915 to 159 million by 1916. By the end of WWI, the U.S. produced roughly 85% of the films shown around the world, and produced roughly 98% of the films shown in America (prior to this, the international film market was having more of an an influence in the American market).
June 15, 1917, Congress passed the The National Vocational Education Act, subsequently known as the Smith-Hughes Act. Developed by Senator Hoke Smith and Representative Dudley M. Hughes of Georgia, this act was passed in response to those advocating for vocational education, to reform the way education was done so that it would, in theory, make America more globally competitive, economically-speaking, by being more efficient at how it taught and trained youth for industrial jobs. This act allowed for federal funding of states with schools which offered vocational education. In the long-term, mainly during the early 1980s, the results of this act were mixed. It was shown that the job training provided by the programs created as a result of this law tended to be outdated compared to present needs of various industries. There was also unintended consequences of segregation. Not just with what tracks blacks and whites would take, not just with what tracks were designated for girls and boys, but also due to the class status of the students.
However, there was to be a string attached. January 1916, a bill was proposed for the creation of the Federal Motion Picture Commission.
The Senate and House majority was Democrat. Dudley M. Hughes would request a revision to the Smith-Hughes act he initially helped write. This revision intended to create a new division of the Bureau of Education. The division would be called the Federal Motion Picture Commission, a commission intended to regulate, and at their discretion censor, all films within the United States, and would do so at the Federal level. This would be supported by Dr. Wilbur F. Crafts (superintendent of the International Reform Bureau), and by the Catholics and Methodists.
Hughes would make the following statement to support his argument for the creation of this commission:
While the idea of censorship of motion pictures is distasteful to our clients, as well as to others in the business, our support of the principle of regulation embodied in the bill before you is due to our realization of unfavorable conditions in the industry which can not be corrected by ordinary means nor by sporadic and occasional criminal prosecutions, procured by the better elements of the business or by individual or organized reformers. The motion-picture business, now of vast financial importance, has had a mushroom growth and is not yet homogeneous and standardized. Too many persons engaged in the business look upon it as a temporary means of getting money instead of a permanent business, the continued profit of which is dependent upon the quality and character of the productions. They are like miners who quickly exhaust the high-grade ore and leave the low grade on the dump. They find the opportunity for such methods in producing and exhibiting sensational productions which display scenes of lust and crime.
Unfortunately, the public is not yet discriminating and goes to see both bad and good, which are usually to be found upon the weekly program of the same theater. Still more unfortunately, the vicious picture brings the larger return to the exhibitor and producer, because it gets the money of the regular customer and the sensation-seeker also. The state of affairs constitutes a temptation hard to resist and, in fact, the production of vicious pictures is constantly increasing just because they are more profitable. If the industry is to endure, if decent people are to stay in the business, this cancer must be cut out. A Federal regulatory commission should prove a fearless surgeon and we therefore favor such a commission.
— Dudley M. Hughes, 64th U.S. Congress, First Session, H.R. 456
A bill to create a new division within the Bureau of Education. To create the Federal Motion Picture Commission. Bureaus for this commission would be located in Los Angeles, California, and New York City. These bureaus would review films and determine if they shall be licensed for exhibition (ie if they shall be allowed to be shown in theaters). The bill also contained the following noteworthy sections:
Section 8: That the commission shall license every film submitted to it and intended for entrance into interstate commerce unless such film or any part thereof is obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, or is a reproduction of an actual bull fight or prize fight, or is of such a character that exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or incite to crime.
Section 13: That the commission shall annually, on or before the first day of January each year, submit a written report to the United States Commissioner of Education. In this report, and from time to time by other means, the commission may recommend films particularly suitable for children, and may make suggestions regarding the recreational and educational uses of motion pictures.
Then Reverend John Macmurray, Pastor of Union Methodist Episcopal Church of Washington D.C., had an interesting say, to say the least.
[…] a large degree of paternalism is absolutely imperative in a democracy. Where every man’s voice must be heard and heeded in the decision of important matters, it is essential that that voice be intelligently raised for the commonweal or Commonwealth, as well as for the benefit of its owner; the aim being the “greatest good for the greatest number.”
It must be a thoroughly trained voice.
The function of the parent is to bring children into the world and train them for the State.
Where parents are too weak, or not wise enough or unwilling to train children thus the State must take the place of the parent. Sometimes the intelligent and capable prefer that the State do this work for their children, as better equipped for the work. Consequently the State has in a large measure taken the place of the parent in training the child and that with the consent of the very large majority of American citizens. What one State has done or is doing, a number of other States, agreeing and consenting, may form a group of States to do–United States. So now the State or a group States provides the conditions by which children are to be brought into the world; designates who shall be their parent, how they shall be born; then what the child shall eat and drink and how it shall eat and drink; what kind of air it shall breathe; what kind of clothes it shall wear; who shall nurse, train, and teach it; what it shall learn and what it shall not learn and when it shall learn it; when it shall play and what and where; when the child shall go to sleep and when it shall arise; provides for conditions of sleep; designates the route by which it shall go to and return from school; takes it from the parent and directs its activities, and may claim its services–the State may under certain circumstances take it away from the care of the parent completely; designates its mental food and its moral surroundings and everything that has to do with its moral welfare and development. When the child grows to manhood that care still continues.
The State tells me what I shall eat, how I shall eat it; what I shall drink and how and when I shall drink it; what kind of air I shall breathe; what I shall wear and how I shall wear it; what kind of house and home I shall have; tells me what I may do in the way of occupation and what I may not; what shall be my amusements and what shall not; takes care of my health; tells me how I shall ride and even what I shall pay for transportation. The State tells me what kind of books and papers I shall read; what kinds of pictures I shall look at and what dramatic performances I shall witness; how I shall marry and whom; how I shall be born, live, die, and be buried.
In fact the State, as a parent, mixes itself into almost all of my personal affairs, and I have become so accustomed to it that I do not demur or resent it. For whatever personal liberty and personal rights I have, and they are very great, I am willing to surrender in most cases because I receive more than the equivalent for what I give in the benefits accruing to me from the mutual voluntary surrender of the personal liberty and rights of others. I have no right to expect to benefit from the surrender of others unless I surrender myself to the benefits of the State. If I am not willing to abide by and be obedient to the laws and regulations of the family government for the good of all the family and let my parents direct, then I can kick and register my kick, or I am at liberty to run away and betake myself as far as possible from these obnoxious family laws and rule. Any American citizen in good standing is free to go to any spot on this globe and be freely welcomed except by those governments where, under the circumstances, he is least likely to go.
He is free to go to Mars if he can find safe transportation.
To be too insistent on personal rights and personal liberty at the expense of others is anarchy, and anarchy is not consistent with itself.
Therefore the State or a group of States may and does say: No influence shall be allowed to neutralize the effects of our public training and instruction; whatever it is wise for the child to receive we shall give; what is not wise we shall withhold.
The State teaches all useful knowledge–arts and sciences. What it does not teach may be regarded as neither useful or necessary but sometimes harmful. The States does not teach burglary, forgery, gun toting, licentiousness, losseness of necessary marriage bonds, or anything else classed as crimes, incentives to crime, nor resultant in crimes against the laws of common decency and proper human development. What the parent State refuses to teach in morality it should not permit outsiders to teach, and thus it regulates or refuses to allow those things which teach lessons subversive of or contrary to the purpose of the State.
Those who oppose paternalism are benefited by and acquiesce in paternalism in all things except when it interferes where they are directly interested, but since they in each case must of necessity be in the minority, and since the “greatest good for the greatest number” must be the thing sought for, they must eventually give way to the wish of the majority.
There can be no doubt but that if this bill passes Congress and becomes the law of the land, this seeming paternal feature will be consented to by the mass of the American people, for their silence and acquiescence will be equivalent to consent when they possess right at hand the power to reject if they should choose to do so. Gentlemen of the committee, you know and I know that the majority of common-sense American people will accept your decision and the action of Congress in favor of the regulation asked for in this bill with equanimity. It is this thought which comforts those who favor this bill.
Now, there is, however, a common ground on which our motion-picture friends and ourselves may stand, for those persons are surely our friends who contribute to our happiness and enlightenment.
That common ground is the censor-not censorship. I feel, after all, that our friends who have done so much for our pleasure and instruction in furnishing these motion pictures do not object to censorship, as it is called. They are not afraid of that. They would be the very first to disown such a fear. They really covet censorship. They have it now in a limited and uncertain manner. But they very reasonably fear the censors with the almost autocratic powers which they will possess–the possible favoritism, partisinship, and corruption–the big stick which may be held over their business with its over $350,000,000 annual income.
And those who have had any experience with many high-priced commissions of the Government feel that this fear is not altogether groundless.
Let them feel quite sure of the fair and square deal for all, that favoritism, partisanship, and possible injustice shall not prevail, and the really strongest objection to this bill must be removed. The higher priced the commission the greater will be the temptation to fill that commission with men who have no other qualifications than political ones, and what one man with appointing power is strong enough to withstand the pressure which must receive fullest attention.
Mr. Chairman, the committee of which I am the chairman is making an investigation of the character of the pictures now being shown in the nearly 80 motion-picture theaters in the District of Columbia, and would be pleased to have the privilege of submitting the results of this definite investigation to you and the committee for your consideration.
This speech gives me chills. Makes me downright terrified that someone made a speech in support of such Orwellian concepts in a meeting of Congress in America. That they would think the idea of a paternalist State/government that would have that much control over their citizens, and that would somehow prevent favoritism, partisanship, and injustice. Stuff like this begs the question, “What loony bin did this psychotic fuck escape from?” Stating that this act of censorship will lead us down a path that will eliminate favoritism and partisanship, while at the same time talking about a majority of common-sense people, the majority, and the power and ethics of the State being superior to that of any individual. Anyone who disagrees should be imprisoned or brainwashed to believe otherwise. I honestly don’t know how it is a film hasn’t been made about this event that hasn’t been a smash hit. It would have a plot revolving around the immorality of Catholics, the potential dangers of government, the threat to individuality. Everything is there that any half-assed cliched film full of stereotypes would be crawling over.
Following this were Statements from the Christian Unions and Societies, which all pretty much boil down to stating that they received information and complaints from other individuals and organizations, various citizens, who state that the films they’ve witness are improper, suggestive, exhibit immoral character; have unclean purposes; they subvert morals, ideals, good citizenship; they corrupt the youth. And, therefore, films must be subject to the most strict form of censorship before being exhibited to the public. But there is an entry worth noting from a Mr. H. F. Worley (keep in mind that films didn’t have a rating system during this time; all films were basically Not Rated):
Many of these things would not be so objectionable to older people of experience and settled opinions, but our membership is largely composed of children from 7 years of age up to and including high-school age. In some cases the pastors are complaining bitterly against the motion-picture shows and have preached sermons calling attention to the harmful effect of some films, and as no one can determine from the title or the outside illustrations the nature of films, it will have the effect of many of our people remaining away from the shows and put them in bad odor.
Many of the films are not obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent […], but they do show features that are immorally suggestive, picture crime in a way to make heroes of the criminals, show the details of safe breaking and other criminal acts make the show a school in crime, and make many suggestions promotive of vice, trickery, and crime.
We object to the motion-picture play showing so much of loose married relations, adultery, infidelity, and jealousy. If a stranger should suddenly drop down upon this earth from Mars and get his information from the motion pictures of to-day, he would immediately conclude that there is not a single good, pure, virtuous woman or mother in the United States, as they make a mockery of married relations and marriage vows. The youth of our land is being educated through what they see in the motion picture and they will come to have the same view. The pictures also set forth un-Christian views of life and cast reflections upon the most sacred things in life. They too often hold up to ridicule the preacher and the priest. There is often undue and unchaste familiarity between the sexes. Deaf-mutes are very expert in catching what is being said in a conversation by watching the movement of the lips. They have reported many times that the conversations carried on by the actors in the motion pictures were not only inappropriate to the picture, but were often vulgar and vile. Of course, the rest of the audience can not detect this. There is too much prominence given to the interior of saloons and dance halls and drinking and drunkenness. They often show too much detail regarding seductions and criminal assaults.
They prostitute the law, show the officers of the law and constituted authorities in an unfavorable light, and often the criminal escapes with the ill-gotten gains, marries a good girl who knows nothing of his past, and reforms. Other boys will think they can do the same. There is too much killing–it is too promiscuous–and the men die too easily. It tends to make life cheap. There is too much revenge, and jealousy is too prominent.
The manufacturers do not all have a decent regard for the sentiments of the people of the Southern States of of other sections, or for the races.
Some of the so-called “problem” and other plays may have a good or at least not a bad moral ending, but the story itself is so dirty that the end does not justify the means. What is not shown in the picture is supplied by suggestive explanatory wording. My little boy and girl often ask me “Daddy, what does that mean?” I can’t tell them, but they get an impression that is indelibly photographed on their brain. In early adolescence, children are very impressionable and imitative, and such pictures as I have described tend to brutalize and degrade them. If it comes to a point where children must be kept away from the shows, very few parents will go and it will only be a matter of time when they fall into bad repute. The companies that are now producing nothing but clean pictures should not attempt to defend the business generally, including those who turn out improper pictures. This same warning was sounded against the saloon in the last two decades, but in their generation the liquor trade thought they were “wiser than the children of light” and that they were too deeply intrenched in politics and habits of men to be disturbed in what they considered as their rights. If they had kept within the law and due bounds and had regulated those of their number who openly flouted the law and conducted indecent places, the great prohibition movement in this country would not have attained its present proportions. A word to the wise is not necessary.
I wish to emphasize in the strongest terms that I am in favor of the motion-picture play and think it has a great future if it is kept clean. I firmly believe that a Federal inspection or censorship of the films before they are exhibited would be a benefit to the manufacturers, distributers, and exhibitors. It would give them a standing. People would not hesitate to go, feeling that they would be in no danger of being offended or their children of seeing something undesirable. I am surprised that they have fought the bill.
Perhaps that’s because they have some sense of logic that you do not?
The Rev. Mr. Brady says that we “don’t put certain books in the hands of our children.” That is just what we are trying to do with regard to motion pictures–not to allow certain ones to be exhibited, or, to use Brother Brady’s words, “too keep them out of the sight of our children.”
When restrictive or regulative measures have been pending before the committees of Congress in the past, I have heard the same specious arguments advanced as to why they should not be enacted into law as are now put forward by the motion-picture manufacturers. They want to be let alone. They say that it is impossible to select five or more men who can pass on these films, but with unbecoming lack of modesty they admit that the five or six men in their plants are capable of deciding what is desirable and what is not. This is a strong assertion of virtue on their part to the effect that they are able to select men who can do this work satisfactorily but that the great Government of the United States can not.
They state that the legislation will infringe on their personal liberty. We have a great deal of civil liberty but very little personal liberty. Adam had it, but it was restricted by Eve’s personal liberty when she came. In like manner Robinson Crusoe had it in unrestricted degree until Friday came. This law is no more an infringement of personal liberty than the pure-food law, opium law, forcible vaccination, prohibiting prize-fight pictures from being shown, holding of duels, lotteries, etc.
They say that this act would be unconstitutional. If so, why do they oppose it? The courts would determine that in their favor if it is unconstitutional. I take it that they fear that it is constitutional.
Or they may fear the court is full of dumbfucks who don’t consider enough of the ways in how the act would be detrimental to the constitution. You know, like the 1915 ruling declaring that film shouldn’t have first amendment rights.
Conservation is the spirit of the day. We are conserving our natural resources in forests, water power, etc. We are spending large sums to save our fruit crops from blight and to prevent and cure diseases of cattle and hogs. I submit that the greatest resources of our country are the boys and girls, who will be the men and women of the next generation. One of them is worth infinitely more than all the hogs in the land.
An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure. If a sewer pipe leaks in a home or on a public street, no one would counsel that it be let alone to see what the effect would be. No; they would all wish to stop up the poisonous flow of gas at once. They would want to take no chances at all, even though the leak might be very small and the effect be harmful in a small degree. If it were at all harmful, everyone would agree that it must be stopped at once. That is exactly the position we take regarding the motion pictures. The manufacturers agree with us that there are some pictures harmful in some degree and others that should not be exhibited at all. In fact, they have been prohibited by the courts from being exhibited at a number of places in this country. How much more necessary that we should stop this flow of poison into the youthful minds! It would not affect the pictures that are now clean, and in fairness I wish to say that there are some companies that I have never known to turn out a questionable picture.
The worst feature of the effect on the youthful minds is that the harvest will not be reaped this year or the next, but the seed is being sowed and the crop will be gathered in the next generation. If preventive measures are not taken now, they will be too late for this generation. We can not expect to sow weeds and reap grain. “As we sow, so shall we reap.”
For the benefit of the youth of the land as well as of the motion-picture manufacturers I trust that you will favorably report this bill and urge its enactment into law in such form and language that it will not injuriously affect any legitimate, well-intentioned manufacturer of clean films or place a burden or hardship upon him. If so, we shall feel deeply grateful to you and the manufacturers will soon see the benefits derived and will rise up and call you blessed.
That statement, “An ounce of prevention is worth of ton of cure,” does have truth to it when put in the right context. But he uses it in one context to emphasize its use in another. I’d go into details as to the problems with this, but William Seabury would do that (more on him soon).
Rev. Harvey J. Brown:
The power of pictures over the imagination and destiny of one family illustrates the moral and psychological necessity of guarding the latent force of pictures in our homes, unless we want our children to be like the pictures they view.
Well, I’ll give Harvey Brown some credit. The least that can be admitted is that motion pictures do have a psychological effect on people, carrying the potential to influence them towards doing one thing or another. Of course, if one is mature and wise enough, it shouldn’t be much of a problem, and they should only be influenced by pictures in the best ways. Those who are not, in particular children, should have some protection from this influence. But that should be at the discretion of the parents, especially because each child is different, let alone each family.
Those were the main arguments for the bill. Now for the arguments against the bill, or what I’d like to call common-sense and less Orwellian. Made by William M. Seabury of the New York bar, general counsel for the Motion Picture Board of Trade of America:
And we predict it will be demonstrated that the proposed legislation is not only wholly unnecessary and an utterly ineffective and a useless expedient for the correction of any existing evil, but that it is ruinous to the fifth largest industry in the country and will constitute a vicious, dangerous, and un-American piece of legislation, which in itself is a serious infringement of the liberties of the citizen and in reality is the announcement of the commencement of governmental censorship of the drama, the press, and of free speech, events so abhorrent and repugnant to the letter and spirit of our institutions and laws as to require from this committee its emphatic and positive denunciation and repudiation.
The motion-picture industry of this country is credited with being the fifth largest industry in the United States from the standpoint of capital invested.
As a medium of thought expression the motion picture is said to reach approximately eight to ten millions of our people daily, and the percentage of adult and infant attendance at these exhibitions is said to approximate, respectively, about 90 per cent for adults and about 10 per cent for children.
Seabury would go on to cite news articles to make his point.
Moving pictures of prize fights are forbidden. Several large Chicago papers applaud. Yet these same papers devote full pages to showing actual scenes from the battle fronts in Europe. A prize fight does not kill. A battle picture that does not show men being destroyed by hundreds fails. Why permit one to be shown and deny the right to the other?
— Chicago Journal, Dec. 17, 1915
“The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the inalienable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.” (Art. I, sec. 7, Constitution of Pennsylvania.)
The fear of libel laws keeps the press within bounds and the fear of the laws against exhibiting indecent, libelous, or immoral pictures will prevent the movie managers from offending public taste. Especially if those who transgress are punished under the general laws covering such offenses.
— Philadelphia Public Ledger, Sept. 30, 1915
If censorship is right in principle, why is it not extended to include every variety of entertainment? Why censor the 10-cent motion-picture play and exempt the $2 so-called problem play?
— Chicago News, Nov. 2, 1915
The general public takes no great interest in the controversy over film censorship. Members of the tribe of Comstock and certain others who are greatly concerned that there shall be no ridicule of race and religions at the movies appear to be the active backers of censorship.
— St. Louis Republic, Oct. 29, 1915
Kansas is not the only State where Carmen [1915 Cecil B. DeMille film] was prohibited from being shown by the censors. In Ohio and Pennsylvania the scissors were wielded whole-heartedly, and finally the picture was kept from these States altogether, as it has been in Kansas.
Comment: These are the three States in the Union that have State censorship.
— Topeka Daily Capitol, Oct. 24, 1915
The best of literature has been ransacked by the motion picture for the children. Sinbad the Sailor, Robinson Crusoe, the Cricket on the Hearth, Three Little Bears, Cinderella, the Children in the Tower, form a feast spread for their enjoyment.
— Louisville Herald, Oct. 25, 1915
Who protects the morals of the movie censors from the “terrible” pictures they must see? Do not these have a perverting effect upon them? They are normal Kansas folk. Perhaps it is necessary that the morals of the censors be sacrificed if need be, but their plight seems to be a sorry one indeed.
— State Journal, Topeka, Kans., Oct. 19, 1915
If Carmen had been a nice, ladylike young person, Prosper Merimee would not have written a novel about her, and Bizet would never have had a chance to make Merimee’s story over into one of the most popular of all operas. And, of course, no one would have made either novel or book into a picture play. And, now, the Ohio board of moving picture censors commands that Carmen must be respectable and orderly. She must not smoke, for smoking is not commendable in young girls of Carmen’s age. She must not do other things which do not conform to be accepted twentieth century social standards. She must, in fact, be denatured. The example indicates not only the uselessness but also the large nuisance value of the State censor board. The time is not far distant when the censorship nuisance will be abated. It is the recrudescense of Puritanism wholly out of harmony with the times.
— Cleveland Plaindealer, Oct. 15, 1915
Public sentiment is the saving force in such matters (pictures about which there is doubt). It has in the past prevented the exploitation of many unsavory plays, not alone in the movies but on the legitimate stage as well.
— Morning Union, Springfield, Mass., Sept. 20, 1915
Censorship, why? The motion picture is an art form. As such, like art itself, it must be free to practice in accordance with its ideals. The decision as to whether these ideals are worthy is too important to be left to one or two or a hundred people. The judgement must be given by the people who will benefit or suffer by the recreations they support. When this course has been pursued in the past there have been no mistakes.
— New York Evening Mail
A State or National censorship of films probably would lead to the censorship of dramatic productions, and thence to magazines, books, and newspapers.
— Waltham (Mass.) News, Nov. 6, 1915
The censorship of moving picture films has been made a political football by Gov. Willis. The result is that motion-picture exhibitors may be forced into politics. It has come to their knowledge that several films, after having been passed by the censor board, have been recalled and rejected at the direct command of the governor. One of these is “The birth of a nation.” It was barred from Ohio by executive order, because it was objectionable to certain manipulators of the colored vote. In the same connection it is told that another film was handled by the censors and approved. Remonstrance was made by a colored politician to Gov. Willis. The film producer heard of it, and said, “I”ll have to see that fellow for $100 or so.” He must have seen him for the next day the governor was informed that the objections had been withdrawn, and again the film was approved and released.
— Messenger, Freemont, Ohio, Jan. 1, 1916
The censorship of motion pictures by the States or Federal Government would put the responsibility in the wrong place. As capable of misuse, moving pictures are not in a class by themselves. Books may carry moral poison. Unwholesome books are actually sold. By very long experience the friends of law and order know it is wiser to deal with bad books after they appear instead of assuming that no publisher can be trusted.
— Boston Herald, Nov. 8, 1915
Why Federal censorship anyway? We have no official Federal board to sit in judgement upon American literature or American newspapers. We have no Federal juries to require orators to rehearse before them ere they may deliver their orations to a breathless public. But we do have adequate laws protecting the public against indecent literature, indecent newspapers, and indecent speakers. If persons violate these laws they can be punished after the act. We should have laws to protect society against indecent films. We have such laws already. We don’t need any more Federal guardians.
— Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, Jan. 2, 1916
A body of nonexpert guardians of public morals is a sore and needless irritation to the public.
— Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle, Nov. 4, 1915
Standards of people vary surprisingly along this line. If every scene that possibly may offend somebody were to be eliminated from the average film there wouldn’t be a great deal of it left.
— Joplin (Mo.) Globe, Dec. 16, 1915
There is no more need of censorship for motion pictures than there is for censorship of newspapers, for certainly it can not be claimed that the sensational newspaper is less potent in its influence than the film drama.
— New York Evening Mail, Oct. 15, 1915
The courts of Allegheny County have in a recent decision nullified the police rights of Pennsylvania cities. By declaring that the State board of censors for moving pictures is the final authority, they have taken away the fundamental power of each city to govern itself. It is impossible to believe that this decision will stand when once its meaning has been made clear.
The board of censors has plenary power to allow or disallow films for exhibition in this State. The tyranny of this body has been suffered only because appeals to the courts and to the police have been available as a check upon it. Now the court has decided that when a film has passed the censors it can not be stopped by the police.
The full effect of this decision is to tie the hands of individuals and to deliver the cities, bound and gagged, into the hands of the board. The censorship of plays properly rests with the people. Their protests are carried out by the police and by the court. There is nothing inherently wrong with the movies to make another kind of censorship necessary. And there is nothing sacrosanct about the board of censors to make its decisions irrevocable.
— Tribune, Beaver Falls, Pa., Sept. 20, 1915
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce has prepared a motion-picture film […] giving views of various phases of Georgia’s agricultural and industrial activities. Among them are pictures of the cotton industry, from planting and chopping time, through the various processes to the finished product of the mills.
We wonder if these mill pictures show the children from 12 to 15 at work? Or has Georgia a board of censorship that eliminated that little feature?
— Telegram, Bridgeport, Conn., Dec. 14, 1915
If Park Commissioner Cunneliffe’s motion-picture censorship bill passes there will soon be a demand for an enlargement of his field of activity. The people will want him to decide what the newspapers shall print, what drama shall be produced, and what books they shall read. Perhaps he will be asked to censor the sermons to be delivered from the pulpits and speeches to be made at public meetings. He will become our mental and moral dictator.
— St. Louis Post Dispatch, Nov. 4, 1915
The people themselves who daily throng the motion-picture theaters of this city and State are the best censors.
— Cleveland Plaindealer, Oct. 30, 1914
The moving picture is not an incentive to crime. Certain abnormal youths may commit crimes after seeing pictures precisely as some man may rob a jeweler’s window after gazing at the rich display it contains. These circumstances, however, indicts neither the moving picture nor the jeweler’s display.
— The Philadelphia Evening Telegraph, Oct. 12, 1914
In days not long past it was the practice of lazy thinkers to blame the dime and novel and the cigarette for crime among juveniles; to-day the same class levels its absurd charges against the motion pictures.
The guardianship of children does not stop at the door of moving-picture theater, and parents who allow their children to go without knowing what they are likely to see can not escape responsibility for their carelessness, any more than if they were to allow them to attend the performances at the regular theaters indiscriminately. The only effective censorship is the registration of public opinion.
— The Press, Atlantic City, N.J., Oct. 14, 1915
There are indications of a wide awakening of the American people to the fact that puritanical interference with innocent amusements is a species of tyranny which they have too long endured. It is bound to become as extinct as the “Dodo.”
— The Morning Telegraph, New York City, Nov. 21, 1915
We see no reason why this censorship innovation should remain within the narrow confines of the moving-picture theater. There is a world of error to conquer. The press daily, or twice daily, pours forth its torrent of comment and report. Officials are subjected to criticism. Events which must stir the moral reprobation of the censorial conscience are minutely reported. Besides there are the books, the rostrum, and the pulpit–all of these constantly offend against the convictions and predilections, sentiments, and standards of the board of censors, who confine the safeguards of censorship to the humble and comparatively unoffending “movie.”
— Tribune, Chicago, Nov. 25, 1915
The bill creating Federal censorship of moving pictures, now in the hands of the House Committee, belongs in the category of avuncular legislation. The people won’t go far astray in deciding for themselves what is proper and what is improper in filmdom. Uncle Sam has taken the trouble of regulating morals on more than one previous occasion, and he has proven himself a conspicuous failure at such work.
— The Times, Pawtucket, R. I., Jan. 3, 1916
In our so frequent discussions of the ethical side of entertainments, and especially in regard to the moving pictures, a great deal is said about “the protection of the children.” But there will always have to be discrimination on the part of the parent, and no public censor can ever take place of that.
— Journal, Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 8, 1915
The censor rejects merely because he personally does not approve of the picture. He approves for the same reason.
The pulpit was almost unanimous in commending the film pictures of John Barleycorn, yet it contained more drinking scenes than any other photoplay made.
Local or national censorship fails. At present no two people will agree, city will not accept the judgment of the State, nor the State that of a Federal comment.
— Gazette, St. Joseph, Dec. 15, 1915
The idea which had the public morals as its basis when the boards of censorship were formed has proven a boomerang to public officials. This kind of thing seems inherent in the practice of censorship. When the government dabbles in private morals condemnation is sure to follow. Censorship should not rest with any small group of people.
— Review, Fort Collins, Colo., Oct. 23, 1915
Really the best censor is a calm public mind reinforced by the shrewd sense of the amusement purveyor.
— Times, Brockton, Mass., Sept. 24, 1915
If censorship is good in principle it should properly be extended to include every variety of amusement.
— Portland (Oreg.) Journal, Nov. 1, 1915
Pennsylvania and Ohio movie censors cut out Romeo and Juliet, because Juliet is a girl in her teens conducting herself in a most unmaidenly fashion, and the play abounds in kisses and passionate love scenes. Having thus eliminated the great dramatist’s art, the censors passed, without question, modern society dramas showing elopements, assignations, murders, and suicides. The censor is a rare animal.
— Republican, Hackensack, N.J., Dec. 16, 1815 [I suspect that year is a misprint]
Hail to the Ohio board of censors! We would like to say for the sake of alliteration the board of sensible censors. But to call the Ohio board of censors sensible would not be true. We fear the board needs the broadening influence of travel and the education that goes with it.
— Reflector-Herald, Norwalk, Ohio, Oct. 18, 1915
That sums up the arguments he cited made against film censorship. Then he opted to make arguments of his own.
The police power is the power of the State to regulate the public health and morals. It is a power Congress does not possess except when used as a legitimate incident of some other existing power.
The power to regulate interstate commerce is a national and not a State power. Yet bearing these simple propositions in minds, the Supreme Court, in the Mutual Film Co. case, decided that a State regulation of the exhibition of motion pictures by means of a State censorship board, including the imposition of a State tax upon the inspection of films which originally came into the State as interstate commerce, was not an interference with interstate commerce and consequently was not beyond the authority of State enactment. How, then, can any court be expected to hold when Congress passes the same kind of an act, solely for the purpose of preventing exhibitions of pictures within the several States, that the character of the legislation, although identical, becomes changed from a statute which regulates the police power, to one which lawfully regulates commerce?
It is clear no such jugglery may logically be permitted.
When the States passed a censorship statute, the Supreme Court said it did not interfere with interstate commerce and that it was a lawful exercise of the police power of the States.
When the States passed a censorship statute, the Supreme Court said it did not interfere with interstate commerce and that it was a lawful exercise of the police power of the States.
If Congress passes a censorship statute, can the courts be expected to hold that the act is passed pursuant to this power to regulate commerce and that it is not a police measure? We think not.
The police power is exclusively a State and not a Federal power.
State censorship is not an interference with interstate commerce and is a lawful exercise of its police power in so far as dramas are concerned. How, then, can a Federal censorship bill be held to be the regulation of interstate commerce and not an exercise of police power?
The guaranty of our Federal Constitution and of the constitution of every State in the Union has been in substance that every man shall have the right to express and publish freely his thoughts and sentiments, being responsible both criminally and civilly for the abuse thereof.
It is to preserve this principle inviolate in its application to the exhibition of motion pictures, particularly to the exhibition of the news and the so-called serial motion picture, for which we earnestly contend.
We are obliged to recognize the power of Congress specifically to prohibit the introduction into this country of a film which depicts a prize fight […].
The enactment of this statute, however, involves no question of the right of the Federal Government to censor films by the exercise of the police power, and that case is no authority for the enactment of a censorship statute by Congress.
It is not pretended that Congress has any power to enact this statute other than the power conferred by the so-called commerce clause of the Constitution. And this function would be fully performed by the enactment of a law forbidding and penalizing the transportation of immoral and indecent films in interstate commerce.
The insertion of the words “motion-picture film” in an appropriate place in […] the Criminal Code of the United States would at once exert and exhaust the entire power of Congress over this subject.
If thereafter any such film was transported in interstate commerce, long before its exhibition the sender and the receiver would be amenable to the Federal criminal law.
If the film so shipped was of the prohibited character, the ordinary enforcement of the criminal law would punish the wrongdoer.
The censorship principle is said to be involved in and to underlie the Federal statutes which regulate the importation and transportation of foods and drugs […], and the protection afforded from the importation an transportation of infected animals and meat established by the Federal meat inspection law […], and other similar statutes.
But no such principle is involved in any of these statutes.
Impure food, habit-forming drugs, and infected cattle, dead or alive, are dangerous to human health in and of themselves, and inspection of such supjects is not a censorship of them.
Whether food is impure and consequently dangerous to health, whether certain drugs contain opium, morphia, or poison of prohibited character, and whether a particular cow has or has not an infectious disease are all medical facts, the existence of which is susceptible of accurate determination by competent inspection of substances already in existence. But the same result can not possibly be achieved by the censorship of a drama or of a motion picture.
There is admittedly nothing inherently dangerous from the standpoint of morality in contact with the physical substance of the films, and whether or not a particular picture when exhibited to the public, either as news, as a periodical, or as a drama, will or will not impair the morals of the community is not susceptible of specific determination except in very gross and plain cases. Such matters involve honest differences of opinion, different standards of morality, each in many instances equally good, and different ideals. One community learns a lesson and derives a benefit from the exhibition of a certain picture, while another audience in a different location may obtain no benefit from the exhibition, and might even be injuriously affected by it. But these are not proper matters for determination by any one commission for the benefit of a country of 100,000,000 people. The only legitimate censor of thought expression is the community in which the thought is expressed.
If a thought is expressed which offends the moral sense of the community in which it is published, there are ample existing remedies to redress the wrong; but it is impossible to accomplish the suppression of an exhibition of undesirable pictures by providing for their national censorship. Who would seriously suggest that an author should submit his manuscript to the Librarian of Congress for his approval and censorship before he might copyright his literacy production? Who would seriously suggest that a clergyman should submit the manuscript of his sermon to some legalized censor who had the privilege of determining the right of the clergyman to deliver the sermon to his congregation?
Who would seriously suggest that the press of the country submit its galley proofs to a national board of censors for review prior to publication?
A play or drama can not intelligently be compared to a piece of infected meat. Neither can the newspaper, the magazine,nor the sermon. And so we confidently assert that none of the statutes to which we have referred contain the slightest analogy in principle to the bill here proposed to be enacted.
We conclude from what has been said that Congress is without power to enact any bill based upon the principle of censorship of motion pictures.
Section 5 of the proposed powers the Federal Motion Pictures Commission stated:
That the commission shall license every film submitted to it and intended for entrance into interstate commerce, unless it finds that such film is obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, or depicts a bull fight or prize fight, or is of such a character that its exhibition would tend to impair the health or corrupt the morals of children or adults or incite to crime. The commission may license any film subject to such excisions, amplifications, or alterations as the commission may direct and require to be made. The commission may by unanimous vote withdraw any license at any time for cause shown.
Seabury would make a statement going against this very section of this power for the commission-to-be:
What number of commissioners is required in order to pass the film in the first instance and to license it, and for what “cause shown” may a license once granted be withdrawn upon unanimous vote?
And how, may we ask, is it humanly possible for the commission or anyone else to determine whether a film is “of such a character that its exhibition would tend to impair the health or corrupt the morals of children or adults or incite to crime”?
But perhaps the most extraordinary power sought to be conferred by the act is that which assumes to authorize the commission to license any film subject to such “amplifications or alterations as the commission may direct and require to be made.” This authorizes the commission to direct a manufacturer to make perhaps several thousand feet of film solely for the purpose of “amplifying” and of exploiting some idea of the commission. The commission is given the authority to determine what shall be emphasized by way of illustration or what less shall not be conveyed by the picture, and what shall be suppressed, curtailed, or entirely eliminated. In other words, the arm of the Federal Government becomes the manufacturer of motion pictures on the capital and at the expense of the producer. It dominates and controls and determines what shall be produced and what shall not. In other words, it censors pictures.
Why, may we ask, is the commission directed to make an annual report making “recommendations to importers and producers of films and to the public regarding the educational and recreational use of motion pictures”? This is only a specimen of the paternalism evidenced by the bill. We have already shown that by directing the commission and empowering it to require amplifications and alterations to be made in the film the Government in reality becomes the producer; not, however, on the capital of the Government, but upon the capital and money of the producer.
And, moreover, it is apparently contemplated that the commission shall indulge in a species of public exhortation, regarding the education and recreational use of motion pictures. Thus it will give publicity and the weight of its sanction and approval to certain films which appeal to the members of the commission, while others equally good, but which, as a matter of taste, do not appeal to the members of the commission, will be condemned by silence.
Many of the suggestions in this new censorship bill are supposed to have emanated from the Famous Players Film Corporation, the Jesse Lasky Co., producing companies which distribute their product through the Paramount Picture Corporation, which also supported the new bill, the World Film Co., the Equitable Film Co., and the Metro Pictures Corporation.
The unexpected support of Federal censorship in any form from these companies is clearly only a shallow attempt to appear before the committee in a “holier than thou” attitude, since these companies stand alone in their position and are opposed by every reputable concern in the industry.
Only those who wish to come as near the line of obscenity and impropriety as possible without incurring liability to heavy fine and imprisonment in the penitentiary welcome the immunity from Federal criminal prosecution which Federal censorship would afford. If, in the rush and pressure of business, or after the commission has been liberally educated in the “moral lessons” taught by some immoral plays, an improper film could be put through the Federal censorship commission, so much the better from the standpoint of those who haunt the border line of impropriety.
The enactment of the Federal censorship bill would not prevent the enactment of other censorship laws in each State in the Union, in each city, in each town, in each village; so that in the course of time, if the principle of Federal censorship is recognized, the industry would be inevitably censored out of existence.
The only excuse for any censorship is a desire to afford children extreme protection. But, if censorship is to benefit the children, each play would have to be censored from the standpoint of the child, so that only children’s pictures would thereafter be exhibited. This would destroy the industry. If this is not the type of censorship which would result from the creation of this Federal commission, the censorship would fail entirely in its purpose and would be worthless and unnecessary.
[…] The local conditions which have resulted from existing State censorships are cited as an argument in support of the bill. We urge the same argument for its defeat. We pointed out what happened to “Virtue” in New York and in Pennsylvania. The argument it presents is irrefutable.
In New York State there is no censorship which involves examination of the prepublicity type. In Pennsylvania a full-fledged censorship law exists.
In Pennsylvania the board of censors prohibited the exhibition of “Virtue” on the screen. An appeal was immediately taken to the court of common pleas and the ruling of the board of censors reversed and authority given to exhibit the picture, and the picture was exhibited in Pennsylvania.
In New York City, where the future exhibition of “Virtue” was extensively advertised, so that its character was known without the necessity of prepublic examination, the commissioner of licenses of the city of New York notified the exhibitor that the exhibitor’s license would be revoked if he exhibited the picture.
The exhibitor was immediately placed upon the offensive. He secured a temporary injunction to restrain the commissioner of licenses from revoking his license; but, upon the final hearing of the injunction, and before, as we are informed, the picture was exhibited at all to the public, the temporary injunction was dissolved and the ruling of the commissioner of licenses upheld, and the picture was not exhibited in New York.
This illustrates conclusively the complete and absolute inefficiency of any censorship of the prepublicity type. It illustrates that in Pennsylvania, where the people are burdened with censorship, a questionable picture is publicly exhibited notwithstanding the prohibition of the censors, while in New York, where no prepublicity censorship exists, the picture is not shown.
I haven’t been able to locate the film Virtue. For all I know, it has been lost to the ravages of time, with no copy left in existence.
No argument against censorship would be complete without a brief reference to the ludicrous manner in which it has been enforced wherever its vicious principles have been enacted into law.
[…] we were favored by the Photo Play Magazine with the advance sheets of an article by Mr. Channing Pollock, in which the facts which demonstrate the ridiculous absurdity of censorship in practice were effectively portrayed.
Mr. Pollock said in part: Considering that it is 40 years since first she (Carmen) mouthed her mad love to the music of Bizet, Carmen might have expected the deference due old age. Beautifully filmed and beautifully acted by Geraldine Farrar, she came as a bolt from the blue to shocked and surprised boards in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California. Her ancient kiss, that inspired the first big press-agent story, was ordered cut to 5 feet. “Just a little love, a little kiss,” warbled the Buckeyes, and nothing more than a yard and two-thirds of affection came within that allowance. “All love scenes showing embraces between males and females” were ordered measured and trimmed, leaving the cigarette maker to give her life for a purely paternal peck from the bashful bullfighter, Escamillo.
Come to think of it, however, Carmen wasn’t permitted to give her life, either in Ohio or in California. A local board in the latter State objected to the killing of a woman by a man, though there is no opposition to the killing of men by women. After all, girls will be girls! It is only the male who must not be encouraged! Pennsylvania banned the little set-to between Carmen and Frasquita, and the duel between Morales and Don Jose. All this had taken place dozens of times in the opera in Philadelphia, without appreciable effect upon the police records; but apparently the censors were comforted by the reflection that no one knows what an opera is about anyway. “Camille” is forbidden in England, but there has been no ruling against “Traviata.” Young persons who weep to the strains of “O Parigi, O cara” probably do not suspect themselves of sympathy with a courtesan!
Ohio prevented poor Carmen’s smoking one of her own cigarettes, and, in one State or another, the majesty of the law raised the level of her decolletage, restrained from her baring the shoulder of her rival and interfered generally with her artless displays of temper and temperament. “Carmen,” as amended and expurgated, must have borne a striking family resemblance to “Elsie Dinsmore.”
If I have failed to keep my promise, and be “excruciatingly funny,” you will admit that the censors are making it up to you. “The Scarlet Letter” was passed, after considerable argument, but no children were permitted to witness it in Chicago. To the contention that minors might read the book, answer was made that “a child of simple training and pure thoughts could read The Scarlet Letter, and, because of the purity and delicacy of its style, have no idea of its real meaning.” Charming prospect! To go through Hawthorne’s masterpiece from cover to cover without understanding a word of it!
At least, no “child of simple training and pure thoughts” would be likely to see in any picture what the censors seem to see. Few children are nasty-minded. A large section was cut from a photoplay called “The Warning” because there was a bed in the room adjoining the scene of action. Of course, a bed could have none other than an immoral purpose. How stupid of the producer not to have exchanged this obscene piece of furniture for a denatured divan. In the picturization of a celebrated play objection was made to a title covering pantomime in which a capitalist told a woman that he would employ her husband. The title read: “I’ve got a proposition to make to you.” It was cut. The censors couldn’t imagine a business proposition.
“Do you mean to say,” the board’s attorney thundered at me, “that you do not recognize this as a brothel?”
I admitted that I didn’t.
“The censors do,” said the attorney.
“Which only goes to prove,” I replied, “that the censors know more about brothels than I do.”
One of the members of the committee indicated that he had in mind the possible advisability of the classification of motion pictures–some for adults and some for children; and it was suggested that such a segregation might be desirable. Our response to the suggestion is that that is one of the matters which, if left alone, will be worked out satisfactorily, first, by the parents of the children who attend motion picture theaters, and second, by the exhibitors themselves, and finally by the local authorities. Certainly this can not be a proper matter for Congressional enactment.
It is said that the repeated depiction of crime in the motion pictures incites to the commission of crime. We remind the committee that we know of no motion picture which, in exhibiting the commission of crime, fails to exhibit its rigorous punishment. Whether such an exhibition teaches a desired lesson, or whether it may tend to incite weak-minded persons to the commission of crime, we are unable to determine.
We believe that this question, like the others, can only be satisfactorily solved by the local communities in which the exhibition of motion pictures is forced upon an unwilling public. There are no exhibitions which must be seen by the public. The public are required to pay for the privilege of seeing them. If the exhibit is distasteful to the public it is certain that it will not pay its money only to be displeased by the exhibition. So the whole matter of proposed regulation of what shall and what shall not be seen, in so far as it deals with matters of taste, sentiment, and opinion, is a matter with which no legislative body can have legitimate concern.
The substance of the argument presented showed that in reality while the terms “immoral picture,” “indecent picture,” “impure picture” were frequently used, what these proponents of the bill really wished to control were matters entirely within the domain of opinion, taste, and individual judgement. The sentiments were freely expressed by these persons that there were too many drinking scenes, that there were too many scenes of adventure and hair-breadth escapes, and that the baneful cigarette was too much in evidence.
Finally, we say let there be a cessation of governmental interference with the duties and obligations of parents. The responsibility for the welfare of the child rests primarily with the parents, and that responsibility can not successfully be assumed by Congress, nor can the burden be taken from the shoulders of the parents and placed upon those of any branch of the Government.
For all the reasons given, we respectfully urge the defeat of the bill.
That’s the last entry from Seabury, but there would be one more from Wilbur Crafts in support of the bill. Some of it is repetition from statements made earlier. Plus an argument about how censoring films is not the same as censoring stage plays.
The plea that if Federal censorship is applied to films, it should be applied to dramas, breaks down at several points. Dramas travel in memories of actors, not in commercial cans, and vary as rendered by different actors and in different places. Theaters need censorship, but it should be local censorship connected up with some bureau of information and warning. The film cans are as much an interstate matter as the cans of beef to which the Federal Government wisely applies “prepublicity censorship.”
That, and an mention of how the commission would work in terms of rejection of a film, which not only bears resemblance to the more modern MPAA, but also to online video platforms such as YouTube.
If any film is rejected, the commission must clearly set forth what part or parts are objected to and why, and the film may be presented again for license if these parts are removed.
Ultimately, this revision to the Smith-Hughes act didn’t come to pass. But it did serve as a severe warning as to how bad the backlash of the wild west film industry would be, with pressure from the churches, and from the government. Primarily in the name of protecting the children, by a desire to force standards of decency onto producers.
What fascinates me is how this attempt to amend the Smith-Hughes Act isn’t all that known to this day. And yet it set the groundwork for most, if not all, of the arguments to be made for and against film censorship. Arguments still made to this day. The event is significant not just because of the prevention of what almost occurred (though in hindsight, it ended up delaying what would later occur), but the statements made for and against. Not to mention a giant fucking dose of Orwellian propaganda thrown in there.
There is one other thing worth pointing out about this event. At two different times during the discussion for the act revision, it is stated that D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation is historically accurate and worth watching for educational purposes. Another indication that people back then weren’t as educated as they should be, and thus more prone to propaganda meant to divide and inspire contempt for the fellow citizen. The thing is, that can work both ways. Failure to educate on other subjects that films falsely depict can carry similar consequences. Like with Remember the Titans. Or even Braveheart.
Firstly, the historical movies have a greater appeal than objective scholarly books and articles, or well-researched popular history books. Most people do not read academic history texts and engage in the research. Neither do I expect people to start doing so. Yet many people rely on history to inform them about their own identity, as well as cultural choices or preferences.
Thus, if people can be influenced to make purchases, and think about themselves, based on what they saw in a movie that presents untruths, then historical inaccuracies are very dangerous indeed.
Steffes, Tracy L. “Smith-Hughes Act” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Smith-Hughes-Act
Gadd, Morgan. “The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917” Texas FFA Association. March 14, 2015. https://www.texasffa.org/news/The-SmithHughes-Act-of-1917
Sklar, Robert. 1994. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. Revised ed. Vintage Books. Random House Inc. New York, NY. Toronto, Canada.