Cinema is an artform born of the industrial revolution, a form of entertainment made possible by advancements in chemistry and mass production. This was also a time of social progressivism - a movement in the United States and elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th century that sought to bring about positive social change through active social organization and government regulation.
Even in film's infancy, special interest groups were seeking ways to regulate this form of entertainment. In 1897, Maine passed the first censorship law regarding films - over the sensitive subject of Boxing.
Prize fighting was an extraordinarily popular sport but it was technically illegal in all but one state - Nevada.
On March 17th, 1897 “The Fight of the Century” occurred between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson, Nevada. The contest was captured on film by Enoch J. Rector on over 11,000 feet of widescreen film - becoming longest and most important films ever made at that time,
Even though states had anti-prizefighting laws, there was no law on the books about showing prizefighting films. Just three days after the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight, the Maine Legislature passed a law fining anyone who exhibited boxing films the sum of $500. Illinois, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania followed suit.
But the popularity of boxing was already too strong and these laws were mostly ignored and largely forgotten.
Regulation Gets Local
In 1907, Chicago, the second biggest film market at the time, gave the chief of police the power to issue and deny permits for movie exhibition based on the moral grounds - making it one of the first municipalities to begin exercising censorship over movie content
The following year in New York City, the biggest film market at the time, Mayor George B McClellan issued a decree on Christmas Eve, 1908 that revoked the licenses of all theaters - shutting down over 550 establishments based on Fire Safety and Moral grounds.
Movies were being hit where it hurt - in the box office. Something had to be done. The People’s Institute, one of the few reform groups that didn't see the movies as “evil” offered up a solution - They brought together ten other reform groups including the Federation of Churches, the Women’s Municipal League, and the Society for the Prevention of Crime to create a new organization called the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship in 1909.
This panel of community groups would review films and recommend cuts for a small fee - New York exhibitors voluntarily agreed to abide by their decisions. Since the New York film market was so big, the board’s influence began to take on a nation wide impact - the name changed to the National Review Board.
For a few years this Board was able to ward off calls for government censorship. But the tide for government intervention was strong with many states enacting their own censorship boards.
And then came landmark decision of Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio Industrial Commission in 1915. Mutual was a Newsreel company that objected to having to pay fees to various state censorship boards and then waiting weeks or months before their newsreels were approved. They filed on first amendment grounds.
But the Supreme Court didn't buy it, and declared:
…the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded... as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.
With that 1915 decision - the movies were not legally considered free speech - thus handing the government the legal reign to implement laws over the content of films. The powder keg of censorship was set, all it needed was a spark and it would come in form of scandal.