Thursday, October 22, 2009

Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville

In a 1975 case called Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville (422 U.S. 205), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a city ordinance that prevented drive-in movie theaters from showing films that included nudity, if the screen was visible outside of the theater's parking area. The city argued, among other things, that the ordinance was a valid means of protecting children. While acknowledging that the city could limit some forms of expression visible to the general public, the court overturned the ordinance because it was overly broad, failing to distinguish between protected and unprotected speech. The ordinance prohibited showing any nudity, even if the movie that contained the nudity did not meet the legal definition of obscene. In other words, the ordinance placed an unacceptable burden on protected speech.

This case calls attention to legal principles often overlooked, intentionally or otherwise, by censorship proponents:
  • Nudity, per se, has legitimate artistic and educational uses. It is not automatically obscene, and therefore can be protected speech
  • Even when motivated by legitimate concerns, government agencies must carefully distinguish between unprotected speech and protected speech.
  • Even minors have First Amendment rights to receive protected speech
Quoting the court:
In this case, assuming the ordinance is aimed at prohibiting youths from viewing the films, the restriction is broader than permissible. The ordinance is not directed against sexually explicit nudity, nor is it otherwise limited. Rather, it sweepingly forbids display of all films containing any uncovered buttocks or breasts, irrespective of context or pervasiveness. Thus it would bar a film containing a picture of a baby's buttocks, the nude body of a war victim, or scenes from a culture in which nudity is indigenous. The ordinance also might prohibit newsreel scenes of the opening of an art exhibit as well as shots of bathers on a beach. Clearly all nudity cannot be deemed obscene even as to minors.

. . .

It is well settled that a State or municipality can adopt more stringent controls on communicative materials available to youths than on those available to adults. . . . Nevertheless, minors are entitled to a significant measure of First Amendment protection, . . . and only in relatively narrow and well-defined circumstances may government bar public dissemination of protected materials to them.

. . . .

In concluding that this ordinance is invalid we do not deprecate the legitimate interests asserted by the city of Jacksonville. We hold only that the present ordinance does not satisfy the rigorous constitutional standards that apply when government attempts to regulate expression. Where First Amendment freedoms are at stake we have repeatedly emphasized that precision of drafting and clarity of purpose are essential.

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