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343 U.S. 495 / May 26, 1952 / Clark, J. / ADMIN Judicial Determination of Sufficiency
of Standards -> What is Sacrilegious? / ECSCALA


Joseph Burstyn Inc.


SUMMARY. Burstyn posed a First and Fourth Amendment challenge

against the NY statute which authorizes the Director of the Motion Picture
of the Education Department to grant or refuse licenses of films for
showing in case such film is determined to be obscene or sacrilegious.
Commissioner Wilson revoked his license to show The Miracle, a film he
produced, after the Board of Regents concluded after examination that it
was sacrilegious. Court held that
DOCTRINE. See last bullet in Ratio.

In the 1950s, New York had a law mandating that films had to be
licensed by the state to be publicly shown. The law read, "The director
of the [motion picture] division [of the education department] or, when
authorized by the regents, the officers of a local office or bureau shall
cause to be promptly examined every motion picture film submitted to
them as herein required, and unless such film or a part thereof is
obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious, or is of such a
character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or incite to
crime, shall issue a license therefore. If such director or, when so
authorized, such officer shall not license any film submitted, he shall
furnish to the applicant therefor a written report of the reasons for his
refusal and a description of each rejected part of a film not rejected in

Joseph Burstyn, Inc., was a corporation that distributed motion pictures

in New York. Under the statute, Burstyn was granted a license to show
the movie which was produced in Italy entitled The Miracle 1, as one
part of a trilogy called "Ways of Love."

Some groups considered the movie religiously offensive and called on

Commissioner Wilson of the NY State Dept of Education, w/c denied or
granted licenses for movies to be shown in theaters, to withdraw the
film's license.

A hearing was held where Burstyn was ordered to show cause on why
the movies license to show shouldnt be rescinded. Burstyn questioned
the jurisdiction of the NY State Board of Regents.

After watching the film, the Board concluded that the movie was
indeed sacrilegious and thus, should no longer be shown in public

Burstyn sued in the state court to force Commissioner Wilson to grant

the license but obtained no relief. NY Appellate Court sustained the
revocation and NY SC affirmed the decision. Hence, this appeal.

1 The film was directed by neorealist Roberto Rossellini. Its plot centered around a man, "Saint
Joseph" (played by directorFederico Fellini), who villainously impregnates "Nanni" (Anna
Magnani), a disturbed peasant who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary.

Burstyn argued that the state law violates the First and
Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.


1. WON motion pictures fall within the First Amendment's
protection? YES.

Gitlow v. New York: Liberty of speech and of the press w/c the First
Amendment guarantees against abridgment by the federal
government is within the liberty safeguarded by the Due Process
Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by state action.

That 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

It is urged that motion pictures possess a greater capacity for evil,

particularly among the youth of a community, than other modes of
expression. Even if one were to accept this hypothesis, it does not
follow that motion pictures should be disqualified from First
Amendment protection. If there be capacity for evil it may be relevant
in determining the permissible scope of community control, but it does
not authorize substantially unbridled censorship such as in this case.
2. WON the state may censor motion pictures on the ground that
it is sacrilegious without violating the First and Fourteenth
Amendments? NO.

The NY statute preventing exhibition of motion pictures unless

provided a license to do so is a form of prior restraint on free

NY SC said in upholding the provision: No religion, as that word is

understood by the ordinary, reasonable person, shall be treated with
contempt, mockery, scorn and ridicule.
o Court says: Though the Constitution does not require absolute
freedom to exhibit every motion picture of every kind at all times
and all places, there is no justification in this case for making an
exception to the basic principles of freedom of expression.
o 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 to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a
particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications,
speeches, or motion pictures.

The whole statute wasnt struck down since the term "sacrilegious"
was the sole standard under attack in the case.