Censorship is defined as the banning, deletion or suppression of content, communications and other information. It is generally associated with oppressive regimes trying to stifle free speech and expression. However, it is also used in the context of shielding vulnerable youths from the negative influence of age-inappropriate entertainment. The problem arises when the idea that children need to be protected from graphic or suggestive media clashes with individuals’ personal rights. As entertainment lawyers like John Branca would probably point out, it is a complex issue. There have been a number of Supreme Court cases that have played a role in addressing this conflict.
1. Ginsberg v. New York
In the case of Ginsberg v. New York, Sam Ginsberg, the proprietor of a convenience store on Long Island, was convicted of selling “adult magazines” to a 16-year old on two separate occasions. This violated a harmful to minors law, legislation meant to guard those 17 and under from possibly injurious materials like pornography. Ginsberg fought back by claiming his freedom of expression rights had been violated. He lost. The result was that the Supreme Court upheld the lawfulness of censoring entertainment deemed as obscene to protect kids and prevent adults from being involuntarily exposed to indecent content.
2. Stanley v. Georgia
While searching the home of suspected criminal Robert E. Stanley for physical proof that he was bookmaking, law enforcement officers found reels of film. They decided these constituted obscene materials and confiscated them. Stanley was convicted for possessing them under a Georgia law forbidding having such content. After he appealed on the grounds that his First Amendment rights had been infringed upon, the Supreme Court unanimously decided in his favor. The final ruling established that people have the right to view obscenity within the privacy of their own homes. Even though states still had the right to restrict the distribution of such materials, they could not do so with regard to simple private ownership of it. (A later case somewhat limited this by affirming the illegality of having child pornography.)
3. Miller v. California
A publisher named Marvin Miller was prosecuted for distributing obscene advertisements. He appealed the conviction, and, in a close 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld it. This case essentially established a test/definition by which to determine whether a work is obscene or not. It did not, however, create a universal standard. Instead, it ruled that interpretations of the definition may vary across the nation and that communities may choose to use their own standards.
These are not the only significant cases in the history of U.S. entertainment censorship. However, their outcomes shifted the face of the industry.