John G. Browning 2016-10-24 14:57:55
Guardians of Morality A look at how America’s history of controversial films shaped free expression. Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures: Film and The First Amendment (University of Texas Press, 2015), by Jeremy Geltzer, is a fascinating and exhaustive exploration of movies throughout the course of American history that helped shape the legal landscape of free expression. Geltzer is uniquely qualified to take readers on this journey: An entertainment and intellectual property lawyer by training, he has also been a professor of film theory and history and worked for such major studios as Paramount Pictures and Disney. The book begins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, showing how the earliest film censorship was in the hands of state-run civic authorities acting as moral watchdogs. It describes how self-appointed guardians of morality regulated not only then-scandalous shorts of dancing girls but also restricted boxing films, particularly to shield American sensibilities from the controversial sight of seeing the world’s first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, pummel white challengers. Geltzer continues to examine how authorities used censorship to banish threats to the social order—whether they were European art films or exploitation B movies from the likes of Russ Meyer—and how moviemakers’ initial defenses didn’t rely on First Amendment arguments. The book is particularly adept at chronicling the Golden Age of Hollywood and showing not only what types of films could be made at various junctures but also how creative directors and writers pushed the envelope. As Geltzer’s work ably points out, the struggle between those advocating freedom of expression and those seeking the role of morality police has ebbed and flowed over the decades as the tastes and tolerances of the public have changed. From efforts to use zoning laws to regulate screenings to keeping track of the number of F-bombs dropped in Martin Scorsese’s films (ranging from 300 in 1990’s Goodfellas to a record 506 or one every 21 seconds in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street), Geltzer leaves no stone unturned. As formidable as Geltzer’s knowledge and as thorough as his research is, if the book has a weakness it is its scholarly bent. Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures may appeal to film lovers, but its academic tone and reliance on long passages from at times impenetrable court arguments and appellate opinions will prove daunting to casual readers. In showing how various motion pictures have expanded fundamental freedoms, Geltzer tries valiantly to shed the legalese, but it proves difficult when one relies on a steady stream of briefs, writs, and judicial reasoning to show how Deep Throat can be as much a milestone as Citizen Kane—at least from the standpoint of striking a balance between government regulations of content and free expression. For readers whose knowledge of the tension between Hollywood and government efforts at censorship is more in the vein of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” take on pornography—Geltzer’s book is a revelation. In the age of the internet, it seems almost quaint to hearken back to a time when a county sheriff could shut down the local movie house or when the Catholic Legion of Decency had movie studio moguls quaking in their boots. However, as Justice Alex Kozinski, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, points out in his foreword, “Freedom of speech leads a precarious existence in the best of times.” Movies may be one of America’s greatest art forms, but the First Amendment and the freedoms it protects are this country’s greatest contributions to the arts. JOHN G. BROWNING is a partner in Passman & Jones in Dallas, where he handles commercial litigation, employment, health care, and personal injury defense matters in state and federal courts. He is an award-winning legal journalist for his syndicated column, “Legally Speaking,” and is the author of the Social Media and Litigation Practice Guide and a forthcoming casebook on social media and the law. He is an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law.
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