Free Speech: Deja Viewing

I was watching C-Span, but it could have been Monty Python's Flying Circus. Attorney General Janet Reno thought the best way to get a voluntary solution was by threatening government intervention. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he didn't like being called a censor and then asked the assembled Hollywood representatives if they thought he was one. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) suggested cutting dangerous scenes from classic films and demonstrated his familiarity with popular culture by referring to Beavis and Butt-head as Buffcoat and Beaver.

But for all the intriguing things said at the Senate hearings on TV violence, the main feeling it inspired was déjà vu. The reformers claimed the "problem" was more serious than ever and getting worse. They asserted that common sense was on their side and they downplayed, if not openly mocked, the idea that personal and parental responsibility could solve the problem (or that such responsibility may ultimately be the only real solution). And of course, they said they were extremely unwilling to have the government step in but were forced to by an irresponsible and perverse entertainment industry.

Would-be censors change their instruments now and then, but they always play the same old tune. Trouble is, the hysterical jig they whip through lends itself more to demagoguery than deliberation. A review of previous moral panics makes the TV-violence hearings seem like just another sad song.

In 1922, shaken by the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and unnerved by recently passed state censorship laws and the threat of federal action, movie moguls hired Postmaster General Will H. Hays to head a "self-regulatory" board overseeing the content of their films. In 1930, the Hays Office adopted the Production Code, written by Jesuit priest Daniel A. Lord and publisher Martin Quigley. With no enforcement mechanism, however, the new code had little effect.

Then in October 1933, the Most Rev. Amleto Giovanni Cicognani declared "immoral motion pictures" were responsible for the "massacre of [the] innocence of youth." (This is a common theme in censorship movements: Children are the reason censorship is necessary, and therefore those who oppose reform lack compassion.) Cicognani's complaint struck a chord with many Catholic leaders and, by April 1934, the Legion of Decency was formed. Members signed pledges condemning "indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals" and swore not to attend "places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy." The Legion's position had an ecumenical appeal: Groups such as the B'nai B'rith, Elks, Knights of Columbus, Masons, and Odd Fellows supported it.

The Federal Council of Churches jumped on the bandwagon and, foreshadowing Reno's call for "voluntary" controls or else, warned filmmakers to mend their ways or there'd be federal legislation. Hollywood responded swiftly and, in July 1934, it hired Joseph Breen to head the newly formed Production Code Administration.

From that date on, studios submitted all screenplays to the PCA for detailed recommendations on the changes required by the code. Even optioned stories and plays generally got advisory opinions from Breen. The PCA screened all movies before release and suggested more alterations. Until a film met with Breen's approval, it could not be released.

The Production Code did more than clean up dirty movies. While it's true that nudity, even in silhouette, was forbidden, and expletives such as lousy, cripes, and nerts could not be spoken, the code also prohibited the questioning of social institutions and norms. No Hollywood picture could ridicule a religious figure or faith, and the flag could not be shown disrespectfully. The court system could never appear unjust. The sanctity of marriage and home had to be upheld, divorce could never seem positive, and adultery could never seem exciting. Kidnapped children were to be returned unharmed, and childbirth could not be presented in any detail. The existence of drug trafficking, homosexuality, miscegenation, prostitution, and venereal disease couldn't be depicted. The word abortion was not even to be spoken, and if the subject was even intimated it had to be strongly condemned. Dances with excessive body movement and stationary feet were forbidden, too.

When Broadway hits were adapted for the screen, moviegoers were "protected" from words and plots in the original stage versions. Foreign films with adult themes, seen by millions overseas without apparently hurting the moral fiber of those nations, had trouble getting exhibited in the United States. Michael Medved's favorite film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, almost wasn't made; Breen warned that the novel it was based on had enormous adaptation problems since the book actually suggested, among other things, that senators are controlled by lobbyists.

But even with the silver screen featuring films sanitized for their protection, kids seemed less moral than ever. By the late '40s, reformers discovered a new culprit leading them down the road to ruin: comic books. Child psychiatrist Frederic Wertham was convinced that juvenile delinquency was due to the baneful influence of comics. Wertham, like many who support governmental restrictions on speech to alter children's behavior, treated kids as innocent, empty vessels waiting to be filled with any negative influence that came their way.

His main evidence was that delinquents read violent comic books. He condemned not just the brutality in crime comics and the gore in horror comics but also the general influence of superhero, science fiction, western, and even educational comic books. He argued in his book Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin's lifestyle was "like a wish dream for two homosexuals living together," that Wonder Woman was a lesbian who frightened boys and created a "morbid ideal" for girls, and that "Superman undermines the authority and dignity of the ordinary man and woman."

Parents' groups organized boycotts and comic-book burnings. States and counties considered legislation against the new peril. The crowning glory of the crusade came in April 1954, when Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) called a Senate hearing on the issue. In an unwitting prologue to today's hearings on TV violence, a group of self-styled children's advocates laid out the case against the offensive material.

Wertham was the star witness for the prosecution. He claimed that comics glamorized evil and violence, even when good won in the end. Like many censors, he portrayed himself as a small voice, armed only with the truth, speaking out against a powerful industry. He stated, "I am not advocating censorship" and implied that, in fact, the comics industry was out to censor him.

William Gaines, publisher of E.C., where the greatest--and most gruesome--comics were created, spoke for the defense. He said he trusted kids and believed "nobody has ever been ruined by a comic." This line of defense didn't go over too well, and the committee questioned him at length, in tones that ranged from doubtful to contemptuous. Investigator Herbert Beaser asked, with some exasperation, "Is the sole test of what you put into your magazines whether it sells?"

Though no legislation came out of the hearings, the industry got the message. They adopted a stringent code of ethics and appointed juvenile delinquency expert Judge Charles F. Murphy as comic-book czar. Horror comics got the death penalty, and crime stories were put on probation. Any comic that didn't receive the Seal of Approval from the Comics Code Authority would not be displayed by wholesalers. (Gaines took his only remaining successful comic, Mad, and turned it into a slick-format magazine so it wouldn't be covered by the Code.)

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