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Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981

by Laura Wittern-Keller

Availablecloth$60.00x 978-0-8131-2451-3
384 pages  Pubdate: 01/11/2008  6.12 x 9.25  

Between 1907 and 1980, many state and local governments empowered motion picture censor boards with the legal authority to keep any movie they considered obscene, indecent, or harmful from being shown. Although the mainstream American film industry accepted the form of censorship known as “prior restraint,” the independent distributors and exhibitors challenged the government censors in court. In Freedom of the Screen, Laura Wittern-Keller tells the story of those who fought prior restraint on movies. By drawing attention to this inequity—film was the only medium so constricted by the 1950s—the distributors pushed a reluctant judiciary to square its interpretation of movie expression with the rights of other media. As these legal interpretations gradually became more sympathetic to artistic freedom—largely because of the independent distributors’ lawsuits—Hollywood was free to discard its outmoded restraints and deliver provocative, relevant movies to American audiences.

Laura Wittern-Keller is visiting assistant professor of history and public policy at the University at Albany (SUNY) and the recipient of the New York State Archives Award for Excellence in Research. She also lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with her husband.

“This fascinating study helps us to understand the way American society evolved from general acceptance of movie censorship to a strong rejection of it.”“The author shows how Americans began to recognize that filmmakers, like the creators of books and newspapers, ought to enjoy the right of free speech under terms of the First Amendment. Wittern-Keller’s well-researched investigation of the fight against censorship makes an important contribution to U.S. social, legal, and political history.”—Robert Brent Toplin

“The author’s research is prodigious and fills a significant gap in the field. All who are engaged in this field will have to incorporate her findings into their stories of movie censorship. . . This reference is needed and will be much appreciated for decades to come. A heroic effort.”—Francis C. Couvares

“Wittern-Keller coolly investigates the tension between individual rights and government restraint in the history of American film.” --Choice

Wittern-Keller’s book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on movie censorship, fills a significant, an important gap in the literature, and will be the baseline reference work on the history of state censorship. -- Journal of American History