CINEMA Turned On? Turn It Off

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, . . . or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press AMENDMENT I CINEMA Turned On? Turn It Off Switching channels may be one cu

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It began at the peep show. One of the first movies -- an 1890s record of the belly dancer Fatima's dance -- stoked demands for its suppression. As the American cinema grew from fairground fad to worldwide obsession, it seasoned its content for the broadest tastes: no nudity, no naughty words, no violence. And, until the case of The Miracle in 1952, no constitutional cloak. In that year, ruling on Roberto Rossellini's parable of a peasant woman (Anna Magnani) impregnated by a bearded stranger (Federico Fellini) whom she believes to be St. Joseph, the Supreme Court ruled that films were a form of expression deserving of the First Amendment shield.

The court's decision came at the dawn of a new era in public morality and popular art. TV was becoming the mass medium of the middle class, yoked to the old restrictions, made timid by its new power. And other media -- film, radio, music -- were freed or forced to retool their products for narrower, more intense audiences. Pop culture was now as fragmented as modern art, and movies were boutique items in the great mall of contradictory American tastes. Movies for kids: I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). Movies for mature adults: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). And finally, in 1969, movies for immature adults: porno went public. That same year the Supreme Court recognized that entertainment -- home entertainment, at least -- was not legally required to please the bland majority palate. In Stanley v. Georgia, Thurgood Marshall declared, "If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a state has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his house, what books he may read or what films he may watch."

Since then, the court has refined its definition of actionable obscenity. To be declared obscene, a work must "appeal to prurient interest," be "patently offensive" and have no "serious artistic, literary, political or scientific value when taken as a whole." If only through the vague wording of that definition, the Justices have helped slow government involvement in the porn-busting business, which hardly means the case is closed. As Editorialist Phil Kerby once quipped, "Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature. Sex is a weak second." Some Fundamentalists have focused their sects' drive on getting Playboy and Penthouse removed from the shelves of 7- Eleven stores. Pressure groups have successfully lobbied the FCC to slap down Howard Stern and the other risk jockeys of raunch radio. In 1984 feminists won passage of an Indianapolis ordinance that defined pornography as the "graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/ or words" -- thereby implicitly condoning gay S-M porn (in which men may subordinate men) and much S-M heterosexual porn (in which men are bent, spindled or mutilated by very bossy women). Pornographers and civil libertarians, however, took out an injunction against the ordinance within hours of its becoming law. Finally, the Supreme Court tossed out the law, affirming a lower court ruling that the ordinance was "thought control."

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