The Past and Present of Censorship in America

Looking at the Hays Code and beyond, we learn from the past to understand the debate about censorship today.

Hays Code

This is part of our series Origin Stories, a biweekly column that uses film history to understand the hot topics of today. This entry looks at the history of censorship in America.


Censorship becomes the debate du jour at least once a year. Recently, streaming platforms removing racist content from their libraries has sparked conversations about censorship again. HBO MAX came under fire for pulling Gone With the Wind from its TCM curated selection of old movies. The streaming service quickly decided to add it back to the platform with a video preceding the movie in order to put the film’s dated themes into context.

The erasure of problematic content is an issue, but it is not necessarily censorship. To understand how removing content from specific distribution outlets differs from regulating the kind of content that can be released anywhere in the country, let’s take a step back in time.

All business, no art

The first mandated censorship of movies did not come from Hollywood itself, but from the government. States and cities created censorship boards to keep what was not acceptable from their town’s audience. Chicago became the first to enact a censorship ordinance for movies in 1907. It required the police chief to watch every movie slated to play in the city before it was able to screen.

Following Chicago’s lead, other places across the country began to create similar ordinances. They had the power to refuse screenings of a specific movie on whatever grounds they deemed indecent or obscene. In a time when traveling from state to state — or even city to city — took much longer than it takes now, blocking audiences from seeing a movie in one town could keep citizens of that area from seeing it forever.

D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was banned in several cities and states including Pittsburgh, Chicago, Kansas, and West Virginia. The censorship boards did not approve of the depiction of the Ku Klux Klan and racist themes in the film. Most of these places lifted the ban a year later, but their efforts definitely had an impact on who could see this movie when it was originally released.

Regional censorship boards didn’t have the power to block a movie from being released overall. However, large states like New York kept movies from making a lot more money than they could have if not banned in the state. Hollywood didn’t ignore these bans at the time, but they didn’t let them police the kinds of movies they released either — at least not at first.

The Mutual Fim Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio Supreme Court decision in 1915 became a huge leg up for those in favor of censoring movies. MFC opposed Ohio’s use of a censorship board and their required fee for approval in the state. The Court decided that movies were not protected under the First Amendment, claiming that “the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit.”

That meant filmmakers could not use freedom of speech as a reason to prevent censorship in America. Distributors had to comply with whatever processes a state put in place for movies to screen in their state. The government’s classification of movies as purely business affected the way they were created and perceived for decades to follow.

Pre-Code Hollywood’s struggle for control

In response to consistent lobbying for government censorship, Hollywood developed The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), later renamed The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The president of the organization was none other than William Hays, the most influential player in censoring Hollywood for decades.

The group’s rules — the “don’ts” and “be carefuls” — were not introduced until 1927. Until then, the group was set up soley to get the public to think Hollywood was making the effort to police its own industry without actually doing much.

The actual films Hollywood produced was not the only thing in the industry under fire. Protestors were also shocked by the scandals happening off-screen in Hollywood. Those scandals included the murder of William Desmond Taylor and the rape and death of Virginia Rapp. It was important that Hollywood made the public think they were listening, but reformers were not fooled.

Hays’ next move was to partner with religious leaders, appealing to the devout Christian reformers. In 1930, Hays released the Production Code, originally written by Father Daniel A. Lord and Catholic layman Martin Quigley and revised by studio heads.

The Code’s rules were published in Variety that year, making the public explicitly aware of what the MPAA wanted to enforce. Included among these rules were a ban on sexual perversion, interracial relationships, criminals escaping punishment, and anything that could “lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

The one thing that was not thought out in Hays’ plan was the sheer manpower it took to screen every film made in Hollywood. The head of the Studio Relations Committee, Jason Joy, needed to watch and revise five-hundred films in one year, a task nearly impossible for one person or the small crew he employed.

There was also no incentive for producers who followed nor punishment for producers who did not follow the Code, leaving the SRC to plead for compliance. Producers were not interested in following rules if they didn’t absolutely have to.

This time in Hollywood is referred to as the Pre-Code era. Racy films that blatantly ignored the Code’s rules became hits. Movies like Babyface, The Public Enemy, and the Gold Diggers series depicted sexual promiscuity, crime, and alcohol openly. Hollywood’s inaction towards the censorship they promised came under severe fire from religious groups. Even with the involvement of Catholic leaders in writing the Code, religious groups were not satisfied with Hollywood’s effort.

In 1934, The Catholic Legion of Decency was developed to condemn films that depicted and promoted sin. They came up with their own rating system for devout Catholics to follow when choosing films to watch. The CLD lobbied for the government to step in, a threat that Hollywood had been sidestepping for years. It was time for Hays and the members of the MPAA to really take hold of what was being produced in Hollywood.

Hays’ cinematic reign

In 1934, the Production Code Administration was created within the MPAA. Its sole purpose was to enforce the rules laid out in the Code and make it nearly impossible for a film to ignore it. MPAA members, who were made up of every studio head from the major studios in Hollywood, agreed “not to produce or distribute pictures which did not bear the PCA seal of approval.” They were now required to submit story ideas, scripts, and final cuts of their movies for review. The PCA could request edits and cuts at any point in production.

If a movie did not receive the PCA seal, it should not be released. Distributors who still tried to release a movie would be subject to a fine. There was also a major hangup for anyone trying to undermine the Code. At this time in history, Hollywood studios not only had control of most of the movies that came out, but they also had control of a huge portion of theaters across the country. That meant if a distributor tried to release a movie without the PCA seal of approval, MPAA studio members could prevent it from playing in their cinema chains across the country.

The fine plus the threat of playing in fewer theaters wasn’t exactly censorship, but it made releasing a movie without the PCA seal a guaranteed way to make less money off a movie. No one in the industry wanted to give up a chance at more money, so their compliance with the Code was solidified.

The control of the Code affected the careers of many stars whose onscreen persona revolved around their sensuality. Sex icon Mae West could no longer make the kinds of movies that jet-setted her career, like She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel. West seduced her audiences unlike any other woman in Hollywood, but her overt sexuality was a huge problem with the Code.

West’s pre-Code characters participated in casual sex and even prostitution. That would not be the case after 1934. Originally titled It Ain’t No Sin, her movie Belle of the Nineties was butchered by the censors. West’s iconic lines always referred to sex, but those had to be cut from this film. Belle of the Nineties clearly suffered without West’s usual sexuality, and her following movies did, too. Her star power came from the image her studio built for her. Deviating from that promiscuous image became nearly impossible for her to do. The Code put Mae West out of work in Hollywood as long as the Hays Code reigned.

Remarkably enough, the restrictive Code didn’t prevent movies from being censored even more so upon release. Local censor boards were still in effect across the country, and they continued to ban movies even if they had the PCA seal of approval. Theaters in the South, for instance, refused to play movies that highlighted African-American performers. Cabin in the Sky, a musical starring all Black performers, was barred from many Southern theaters when it was released for that very reason.

In 1946, New York State and the city of Milwaukee banned Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street. The local censors thought the film noir was “obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, and sacrilegious.” They also feared that the movie would incite crime. Despite the fact that the Code approved of the film, censors still took issue with it.

Bans like that proved that the Code could help prevent widespread boycotts against Hollywood but could not guarantee that a film would not be banned throughout the country. This would be the beginning of multiple circumstances that would bring the end to the Code.

Post-Code ratings

The fall of the Code began in 1948 when the Supreme Court ordered that studios divest their ownership in theater chains. At this point in history, studios owned, either partially or outright, seventeen percent of the theaters in the country. While that may not sound like much, it accounted for forty-five percent of the revenue from renting prints out to theaters.

This widespread ownership of theater chains was on the brink of a monopoly, and the Supreme Court stepped in. Afterward, without MPAA members owning a lot of the theaters, it became harder for the prevention of a movie without the PCA seal from being released.

Following that Supreme Court decision, director Otto Preminger released The Moon is Blue without the PCA approval in 1953. Preminger refused to remove the dialogue about virginity and pregnancy when the PCA requested edits. Independent distributor United Artists agreed to put the movie out without the PCA seal. It became a box office hit.

It also became a shining example that the Hays Code was slacking behind the times. Post-World War II America was a drastically different country than when the Code was drafted in the 1930s. Attitudes toward sex and crime were becoming more lenient, but the restrictions on movies did not reflect that.

In 1956, the Code was revised for the first time. Depictions of drugs, white slavery, and abortion were no longer banned. However, this revision didn’t address what audiences and filmmakers really wanted more leniency on, like sex.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court had been overturning bans on movies throughout the country, but they never actually said that movies were now protected by the First Amendment. The landmark decision in the 1952 case of Burstyn v. Wilson, however, made it clear that movies needed to be seen as an art form.

The Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to ban Roberto Rossellini’s short film The Miracle in the States. They also explicitly stated that movies were protected by free speech, changing the way the country had considered movies since 1915. As the country changed, what audiences needed from movies also changed. The heyday of studios and the Production Code was coming to an end.

It would take a decade for the MPAA to find new leadership and break down the rules that kept so many stories from being told. New president Jack Valenti scrapped the Hays Code rather than trying to revise it once again. He introduces the age-based rating system that we know today. This put the censorship in America more on the audience and what they wanted to experience rather than on the filmmakers. This new rating system went into effect in 1968.

Around the same time, Virginia and Kansas ceased their censorship ordinances. Other states followed suit, and all the censorship boards have since been removed, except for Maryland’s. This ended the government’s say on any kind of censorship in the movies.

However, that didn’t mean that people outside of the government wouldn’t try to censor movies. The outcry against specific movies continued into New Hollywood. As the country tried to lean more conservative in the 1970s and 1980s, filmmakers and conservative audiences butt heads once again.

William Friedkin’s 1973 horror masterpiece The Exorcist tested the limits of the new rating system and audiences around the country. The MPAA granted an R-rating to the movie, despite its profanity and disturbing images. Catholics were outraged over the way their religion was depicted. People around the country felt that the rating was much too loose for such a horrifying movie.

The R-rating allowed adults to bring children into the theater for the movie, meaning teens could see the movie with a parent. Most theaters didn’t show anything worse than an R-rated movie, so an X rating would prevent the general public from seeing the movie. Advertizing for an X-rated movie was also extremely difficult. Without the R-rating, The Exorcist would not have been such a box office hit nor the classic we know today.

No movie can be banned within the United States now, but they can be censored elsewhere. Many American movies have to be re-cut in order to meet foreign censor rules when released internationally. And some countries still ban American movies outright, without any chance for revision.

Countries that outlaw homosexuality, for example, have refused to screen movies featuring gay characters, including Brokeback Mountain and the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Specific cultures respond to certain aspects of movies in different ways, making it nearly impossible to make a universally appealing movie.

Censoring mistakes

The most recent content debate isn’t really censorship at all. As the past has shown, censorship means preventing content from seeing the light of day. It keeps audiences from ever seeing something they could think is immoral or indecent.

The removal of racist 30 Rock episodes from streaming services and rerun schedules, on the other hand, does not keep audiences from ever finding those episodes elsewhere. It doesn’t erase them from people’s memories. The removal of racist content comes down to protecting a brand and absolving that brand of its past mistakes rather than understanding them. Trying to erase the past has never worked out, and we look to history to prove that.

Future cool librarian. Current film history lover.