Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New book: Wittern-Keller, Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981

"This fascinating study helps us to understand the way American society evolved from general acceptance of movie censorship to a strong rejection of it," writes Robert Brent Toplin about the new book FREEDOM OF THE SCREEN: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981 by Laura Wittern-Keller. Toplin, author of History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past, continues:

The author shows how Americans began to recognize that filmmakers, like the creators of books and newspapers, ought to enjoy the right of free speech under terms of the First Amendment. Wittern-Keller's well-researched investigation of the fight against censorship makes an important contribution to U. S. social, legal, and political history.
In the area of freedom of expression, we often focus on battles in the Supreme Court. This book covers important Supreme Court cases, but also brings the struggle down to the state level, illuminating battles over film censorship carried on in the states. Here's the University Press of Kentucky book description:

Between 1907 and 1980, many state and local governments empowered motion picture censor boards with the legal authority to keep any movie they considered obscene, indecent, or harmful from being shown. Although the mainstream American film industry accepted the form of censorship known as "prior restraint," independent distributors and exhibitors challenged the government censors in court.

In Freedom of the Screen, Laura Wittern-Keller tells the story of those who fought prior restraint on movies. By drawing attention to this inequity--film was the only medium so constricted by the 1950s--the distributors pushed a reluctant judiciary to square its interpretation of movie expression with the rights of other media. As these legal interpretations gradually became more sympathetic to artistic freedom--largely because of the independent distributors' lawsuits--Hollywood was free to discard its outmoded restraints and deliver provocative, relevant movies to American audiences.

Laura Wittern-Keller is visiting assistant professor of history and public policy at the University at Albany (SUNY) and the recipient of the New York State Archives Researcher of the Year award.

And here's a second endorsement:

The author's research is prodigious and fills a significant gap in the field. All who are engaged in this field will have to incorporate her findings into their stories of movie censorship. . . . This reference is needed and will be much appreciated by historians, film studies specialists, and legal scholars for decades to come. A heroic effort.

--Francis G. Couvares, author of Movie Censorship and American Culture

The press has a nice website for the book, with links to descriptions of Major Court Cases Involving Film Censorship and to three interviews with the author. A press release is here. And this is the first example I've seen in which the press website offers a steeper discount on a new book than the usual on-line sources, making the new hardback affordable. The only production draw-back is that, most unfortunately, the press did not include photographs inside the book. Your library may have overlooked this one, in spite of its award-winning research, and simply because the press is not particularly high-profile, so send a link to your favorite librarian.

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