In Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. Dallas, 390 U.S. 676 (1968), the Supreme Court rejected a city’s film censorship ordinance that failed to provide sufficient guidance to those in the motion picture industry and to members of the city board who had to decide whether the films were suitable for minors. The Court determined 8-1 that the city ordinance violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being too vague, even though on the same day it had upheld a general harmful-to-minors law in Ginsberg v. New York.
Dallas ordinance created classification board to identify films “not suitable for young persons”
A Dallas, Texas, ordinance created a Motion Picture Classification Board that had the power to classify films as “not suitable for young persons” if board members thought the films were likely to incite or encourage crime, delinquency, or sexual promiscuity on the part of young persons. The exhibitor and distributor of the movie Viva Maria challenged the ordinance in Texas state court after the classification board ruled the movie not suitable.
After a county court and the Texas Court of Civil Appeals upheld the city law, the film industry appealed to the Supreme Court.
Court ruled the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague
Writing for the majority, Justice Thurgood Marshall ruled that the film ordinance was unconstitutionally vague because it failed to provide sufficient guidance and standards to determine which films should merit censorship. He noted the lack of a definition for “sexual promiscuity” and concluded that the law turned the classification board into a “roving commission.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice William O. Douglas, joined by Justice Hugo L. Black, also ruled against the ordinance. They reiterated their position that obscenity and harmful-to-minors laws flatly violated the First Amendment.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice John Marshall Harlan II wrote of the “intractable obscenity problem.” Harlan favored giving more deference to state and local governments in the obscenity arena, particularly because the Court cannot give sufficient guidance to such governments. “The truth is that the Court has demanded greater precision of language from the City of Dallas than the Court can itself give, or even than can sensibly be expected in this area of the law,” he wrote.
David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017). This article was originally published in 2009.