That Time the Supreme Court Unanimously Ruled Films Were Not Protected By the First Amendment

Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915) was a Supreme Court decision that shows just how far we’ve come with protections for free speech in the intervening years and the risks entailed in any backsliding on free speech rights.

Mutual Film Corporation was a conglomerate that produced movies during the early 20th century. In 1913, Ohio enacted a law creating a censorship board that had the power to ban films.

Mutual Film Corporation filed a lawsuit against the state of Ohio, and lost. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that films were not protected by the First Amendment.

The exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit like other spectacles, and not to be regarded as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion within the meaning of freedom of speech and publication guaranteed by the Constitution of Ohio.

Of particular interest is that a major part of the Court’s reasoning was that the act of showing a film was purely commercial speech,

The exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit like other spectacles, and not to be regarded as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion within the meaning of freedom of speech and publication guaranteed by the Constitution of Ohio.

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