SIGNIFICANCE: BURSTYN V. WILSON

Case NameJoseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson 
Citation: 343 U.S. 495 (1952) 
TopicsBlasphemy

In 1950, the New York State Board of Regents, pursuant to a New York statute (See McKinney’s N. Y. Laws, 1947, Education Law, § 122) that expressly permitted the banning of motion picture films on certain grounds, rescinded Joseph Burstyn’s license to distribute his film entitled "The Miracle" because it was, in their determination, “sacrilegious.”Burstyn brought an action claiming that this statute was unconstitutional because it violated his First Amendment right of free speech and free press.

The Court agreed with Burstyn’s claim, concluding that a statute permitting prior restraint upon religious views is unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas and are therefore protected by the First Amendment. Specifically, the court held that

…the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures…We hold only that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments a state may not ban a film on the basis of a censor’s conclusion that it is “sacrilegious.”

Furthermore, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument that motion pictures do not fall within the protection of the First Amendment because their production, distribution, and exhibition is a business conducted for private profit. On the contrary, the Court reasoned that just because motion pictures- like books, newspapers, and magazines- are published and sold for profit does not prevent them from being a form of expression whose liberty is safeguarded by the First Amendment.

This case reveals how prior restraints are particularly suspect under the First Amendment, as they prevent speech from ever reaching the public in the first place. In the 1931 landmark case Near v. Minnesota (283 U.S. 697 1931), where a Minnesota law disallowing the publication of anything malicious, scandalous or defamatory was found to be unconstitutional, the court held that there is a strong presumption against prior restraints. The Court reasoned that it can be dangerous to prevent speech from ever reaching the public. Subsequently prohibiting or punishing unprotected speech after it reaches the public better serves the First Amendment. As such, there is less danger that protected speech will never be communicated.

These materials are not intended, and should not be used, as legal advice. They necessarily contain generalizations that are not applicable in all jurisdictions or circumstances. Moreover, court decisions may be superseded by subsequent rulings, and may be subject to alternative interpretations. Corrections, clarification, and additions are welcome here.