Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Origins of Film Censorship

Barak Y. Orbach, University of Arizona, has published "Prizefighting and the Birth of Movie Censorship," at 21 Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 251 (2009). Here is the abstract.

Censorship scholars unanimously, but mistakenly, treat a 1907 ordinance of the City of Chicago as the first act of censorship in the United States. This Article finds, however, that movie censorship was born in March 1897 with prohibitions against a now-extinct genre: prizefight films that depicted real and staged boxing fights. At the time, boxing was generally illegal, yet the sport was enormously popular and boxers enjoyed privileged social status. In fact, shortly after Thomas Edison commercialized moving picture technologies in 1894, he accommodated the production of prizefight films at his studio in New Jersey, where prizefighting was prohibited.

The Article documents the reasons for Edison’s decision to veto of the use of his equipment for prizefight films, only a few months after the production of prizefight films at his studio. Because of Edison’s position in the industry, this decision effectively constituted the first form of content self-regulation in the motion-picture industry, approximately thirteen years before the presently-believed-to-be first form of content self-regulation in the industry.

This Article, therefore, begins to close a neglected gap in the literature on movie censorship. Its findings require a reexamination of content regulation in the motion picture industry, whose presumed twentieth century origins hide legislatures and industries already experienced with censorship campaigns and laws. Despite this Article’s historical reach, it provides important insights into modern-day social regulation. The failures of the nineteenth-century regulators to curtail popular activities like prizefighting can inform and shape current regulatory efforts, such as the design of anti-smoking policies.

Download the article from SSRN here.

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