On Tuesday, September 14, 2010, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell called a press conference at his Harrisburg office to discuss a report in the Harrisburg Patriot-News on the activities of the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security relating to natural gas drilling in the mid-state and the controversial documentary by filmmaker Josh Fox called Gasland. According to the Patriot-News, intelligence bulletins from the PA Office of Homeland Security showed that the office – through a private contractor known as the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response – had been tracking the Internet activity of anti-drilling activists to determine the public meetings they were planning to attend (including public screenings of Josh Fox’s film) and alerting local police and gas industry officials.
A representative from the PA Department of Homeland Security claimed that their had been five to ten recent acts of vandalism to natural gas drilling sites around the Commonwealth and that the information on anti-drilling activists was being supplied to local officials and the operators of such sites as a means of public protection. Governor Rendell, however, was not as supportive of this. Stating that he was “embarrassed” and “appalled” by the actions of security individuals, the Governor promising that the private contractor’s agreement with Harrisburg would not be renewed in October though James Powers, the state’s director of Homeland Security, would remain employed. Governor Rendell also went on to say that the items included in the intelligence bulletins were “absolutely ludicrous,” and said distribution of security information to gas-drilling companies “was against the guidelines set up for this program to begin with.” “Let me make this as clear as I can possibly make it,” Rendell said. “Protesting against an idea, a principle, a process, protesting is not a real threat. Protesting is a God-given American right, a right that’s in our Constitution.” Despite the tough rhetoric, doubts remain. The Governor’s own chief policy adviser, Donna Cooper, reportedly knew about the bulletins as far back as July and State Police Commissioner Colonel Frank E. Pawlowski had commented publicly that nothing in the bulletins “was of any value to the State Police.” Political observers at the State Capital now fear that this latest flub by the Governor’s office could endanger efforts to get tougher political measures passed regulating natural gas drilling and strengthen industry lobbyists in Harrisburg. (To read more on this story from PennLive.com, click here)
Sad as it may seem, this is not Pennsylvania’s first attempt to censor political activists or what was deemed as controversial in the world of film. For the first half of the 20th Century, the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors oversaw the banning of public forms of entertainment deemed as controversial or obscene. Created in 1911, under the tenure of Pennsylvania governor John Kinley Tener, a former Major League ball player and champion of child welfare and education, the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors was the first such body in the United States and was also one of the strictest. It was responsible for reviewing all soon to be released films in the Commonwealth and was charged with approving “such [films] as shall be moral, and to withhold approval from such [films] as shall tend to debase or corrupt the morals [of Pennsylvania citizens].” The twenty-two member board was directly appointed by the governor and operated field offices for viewings in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with a central office in Harrisburg.
Throughout its almost fifty year history, the State Censorship Board required that all films submitted for review be accompanied by scripts, and foreign films have notarized affidavits swearing that their translations were accurate. All motion pictures shown publicly in the Commonwealth were required to display the Board’s stamp or seal of approval on screen for every four feet of film and the Board also required that all movie advertising meet the same rigorous standards as the film itself, which were laid out in the Board’s official handbook. The extensive list of specifically banned subject matter included references to prostitution or “white slavery,” seduction or assault of women or young girls, graphic depiction of (or subtitles describing) childbirth, the use of illegal drugs, gruesome murder scenes or criminal activity, nudity or sexually suggestive use of exposed body parts, birth control, abortion, venereal disease, men and women living together without benefit of marriage, adultery, sensual kissing or lovemaking, lewd or immodest bathing or dancing, sexually suggestive use of cigarettes by women, exhibition of women in night dresses, brutality, drunkenness, excessive use of gunplay and knives in an underworld setting, counterfeiting, lynching, ridiculing of races or social groups, and irreverent or sacrilegious treatment of religion. Records at the State Archives reveal that just between 1935 and 1949 alone the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors reviewed a total of 24,235 films and ordered that eliminations be made in 2,226 different films while seventy-six films were banned outright.
When the Board determined that scenes should be removed, the film distributor was notified that changes were necessary and the Board would generally work with the film company in finding ways to edit out offensive material or restructure the film. However, this did not always mean that the film’s creators wanted the Board’s help. In 1933, the German-based Eureka Productions released a film called Ecstady, which immediately met with Board disapproval in the Commonwealth. The film stared future Hollywood superstar Hedy Lamarr as a young bride who discovers that her awkward husband is impotent. She then has an affair with another man and is shown in the nude for several extended scenes including a skinny-dipping sequence and a passionate love scene which perhaps is the first non-pornographic portrayal of sexual intercourse in motion picture history, although the camera never shows anything more than the actors’ faces. The Pennsylvania Board of Censors banned the film the day after it was first received in the US in 1936 and in May of 1939 again rejected the film “on the grounds that the [title] referred to…the ecstasy of immoral relations” and that “the entire theme of the picture is immoral and indecent.” Despite Eureka’s protests, the film remained banned in the Commonwealth until 1942 when an edited version of the film was finally approved. However, the film again ended up on the Board’s banned list in 1948 when a bootlegged un-edited version was circulated throughout the state.
Despite protests from movie companies, actors, and the general public, the members of the Pennsylvania Board of Censors believed that they were protecting individual citizens from harmful, salacious, and violent subject matter that could negatively impact the population of the Commonwealth. Despite their best efforts, the Board would meet its end in the courts. After loosing a number of First Amendment-related lawsuits in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the state’s censorship board was unconstitutional in 1956, officially disbanding it.
Regardless how you feel about the efforts of people to stop natural gas drilling or the movies that Hollywood is choosing to showcase nowadays, we can all agree that the Constitution affords all Americans the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression – even if that view is an unpopular one. To censor such a right or to try and intimidate those who carry its message, would be a slap in the face to our founding principles. The quest for social decency can only be used so many times before being corrupted and the Pennsylvania Board of Censors is a great example of how power corrupts absolutely.
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