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New First Amendment Library timeline: “The History of Film Censorship” by Laura Wittern-Keller

A telltale sign of Halloween creeping up on the calendar is the flood of horror films in theaters. Filled with gore, crime, psychological thrills, and the occult, these films are commonplace nowadays. But they have not always been welcome in American theaters.

FIRE’s First Amendment Library is proud to now house a timeline titled “The History of Film Censorship,” which chronicles Hollywood’s continuous battle for strong First Amendment protections and creative freedom. The timeline is authored by Professor Laura Wittern-Keller of the University at Albany. Professor Wittern-Keller also wrote “Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981,” and co-authored “The Miracle Case: Film Censorship and the Supreme Court.”

The timeline spans from the first distributed cinematic kiss produced by Thomas A. Edison, Inc. in 1896 to the 1990 Miramax challenge to the Motion Picture Association of America’s X rating of the Spanish film “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” which ultimately led to the creation of the NC-17 rating.  

Other highlights in this timeline include:

  • The publication of the 1927 “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” for the industry, which banned the depiction of everything from “nudity” and “[r]idicule of the clergy” to “[w]hite slavery.”
  • The FBI’s quest to block the theatrical release of the pornographic film “Deep Throat” in 1972.
  • The creation of the PG-13 rating in 1984 — first applied to “Red Dawn” — after the questionable PG release of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

Films give us an intimate look into the backgrounds and lifestyles of people that we may never have the chance to interact with, and allow us to explore unthinkable realities. We hope that the next time you find yourself at the movie theater, after commiserating about the high cost of popcorn and tickets, you can find a moment to reflect on the historic battles for creative freedom in Hollywood and appreciate the freedom of choice Americans have in choosing the media they consume.

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