Censorship On The Internet: History Repeats Itself
Censorship on the internet mirrors the history of censorship in film. Movies spent much of their mid-life in heavy censorship. Will the Internet suffer the same fate?
In 1915 the Pennsylvania Film Board viewed a copy of Cecil B DeMiles’ new film, ‘Kindling’. They were appalled and ordered drastic cuts to the finished print before it could ever be shown in the state. This ‘shocking’ movie told the simple story of a pregnant mother. The Film Board allowed no references or images to pregnancy in any movie shown in the state. Even a harmless scene of a woman knitting baby booties would have to be removed. The members of the Board believed ‘That movies were attended by thousands of children each week who each believed that babies came from the stork and there was no sense in destroying that thought’.
Such was the early case of the movies. The ‘birth’ of movies, as we know them, occurred on December 20, 1895 when August and Louis Lumiere, in a Paris restaurant, cranked up a motion picture projector for the first time before a paying audience. The light flickered across the screen as the audience gasped, spellbound at seeing images that were once inanimate, animated. The second film that night was the simple scene of a beach. As the waves crossed against the sand, the gathered crowd ran from the theatre, terrified the water would cover them.
From the beginning movies have evoked a strong reaction in those that watch them and those that wish to control them. This early history of film and its censorship tribulations can be seen being replayed today in the Internet. There are strong parallels between the two industries and as the Internet carves out a place for itself, it is interesting to look back when film did the same. This article does not purport to be complete and full on this subject as books can be written (and in fact, many fine ones have). You will find here some basic facts, ideas and a strong recommendation to look further into the progress and the problems of the early film industry. In doing so, we may be able to push the Internet forward with less resistance at a benefit to all.
As the first films were shown in America, the first outcries of reform groups could be heard. People were appalled at the sex (in particular two people in a prolonged kiss in The Kiss 1896) and the violence (not just in ‘cops and robbers’ movies, but the cartoon violence of Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops). At a time when nearly 65% of American children attended the movies every week, these ‘reformers’ were particularly concerned about the effect movies on the young and ‘innocent’.
Taking matters into their own hands, these groups pressured city and state governments to set up Film Review Boards. These boards would view any film that was to be shown and take out any parts that were deemed ‘unwholesome for the community’. It was a constant battle between film studios and the reformers as the studios tried to preserve their work while the reformers fought for their version of the ‘good’. No matter how educational, artistic or intrinsic to the plot a scene was, if it didn’t fit into that city/state's moral guideline, it was cut.
1915 was the landmark year in the battle for free expression as that is the year that the movies lost the fight. In an attempt to show their controversial film ‘Birth of a Nation’ (what many consider to be the first American movie), the Mutual Film Corporation challenged the legality of the Ohio Film Board in court on the basis that the Board violated Mutual’s right to free speech. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where Mutual lost. Justice Joseph McKenna, who wrote the decision for a unanimous court, discussed the dangers of exciting the purient interests in children and audiences of mixed sense and stated that films were a business and not a part of the press. He elaborated:
“(Films) are mere representations of events, of ideas and sentiments published or known; vivid, useful and entertaining no doubt, but…capable of evil, having power for it, the greater because of their attractiveness and manner of exhibition.”
Eventually, in 1952, the court saw a new light and this ruling was overturned, but many artistic and creative ideas and thoughts had already been stifled.
Today this 80 year old case is still relevant, we hear the arguments almost weekly, as to whether or not movies influence people or people influence movies. Only now it is not just film under the spotlight, it is television, music and more immediately the Internet and everything surrounding it (including games) As the internet works to seek out its place in the community and the culture it will undoubtedly face critics and reformers alike. It is important for even the casual user to become involved and interested in the outcomes of these battles as they will most likely be the new guidelines on how we view the media (and how the media views us) for the next 80 years.