How About a Legion of Decency?
Jude Wanniski
September 13, 2000


To: Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Privatizing Censorship

The lead editorial in yesterday’s New York Times, “Unworthy Pandering by Mr. Gore,” sharply criticizes the Vice President for recommending federal censorship of the entertainment industry to protect children from violence and sex. The NYT is justly alarmed at Gore and his running mate, Holy Joe Lieberman for getting behind the idea of legislation to empower the Federal Trade Commission to punish the bad guys in Hollywood: “That is a sophistry that seems to reinforce the charge by the Republican nominee, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, that Mr. Gore will say anything to get elected. A presidential candidate can properly promise to jawbone Hollywood into responsible behavior on this serious national problem. But to seek the votes of cultural conservatives by advocating new legal restrictions on commercial speech is a dangerous assault on civil liberties and the Constitution.”

As Ira Stoll quickly pointed out today on his watchdog website,, the Times is exactly right, but a bit hypocritical. Here is how he put it: “Great. They finally get it. So, is the Times now going to renounce its editorial support for restrictions on tobacco advertising? Or, is it going to cease its advocacy of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance ‘reform’ bill and of other bills that would impose disclosure requirements on issue-advocacy groups that run television commercials in a designated period before an election? The Times' editorial today puts the newspaper in the absurdly contorted position of opposing any additional regulation on ads for violent or vulgar movies and video games as ‘a dangerous assault on civil liberties,’ but favoring new legal restrictions on political speech, which is the very sort of speech that the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. This may be just knee-jerk liberalism at work: defend Hollywood, support campaign-finance reform, oppose tobacco. It's probably just a coincidence that the Times arts section is fat with ads for movies, and that campaign finance reform, by restricting political TV commercials while leaving the Times' news columns and editorials unfettered, would have the effect of sharply increasing the value of the Times and other newspaper companies.”

Well, that is a little harsh. But it does point up a difficulty for the liberals who write for and read the Times. It actually recognizes a parental need for screening to protect children from the yuck that now is all around us. Whenever there is a collective “need,” liberals automatically look to the federal government to satisfy that need. Here, though, the need runs up against the First Amendment and expression and the separation of church and state, so the Times and its political constituency is at a loss. What to do?

When I was a little boy growing up in Boro Park, Brooklyn, in the 1940s, I saw a double feature every weekend and never saw any yuck. The reason was the private sector effectively punished Hollywood if it tried to sneak some unnecessary sex or violence into their films. It did so through the Legion of Decency, which was somehow affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Its screening in the early 1940s took over from Hollywood’s self-censorship of the Hayes Commission, which began stamping out nudity in 1934. The Legion had a crew of censors who watched all the films before they hit the theaters and gave their approval, or not. Their decisions would be posted in the back of the church or in the weekly bulletin, which my parents would pick up after mass. A really bad movie would be “condemned.” It was in 1943, when I was seven, that I absolutely knew I could not go see a movie called “The Outlaw,” produced by Howard Hughes and starring Jane Russell, wearing a special bra he had designed for her. The records indicate Hughes finished filming in 1941, but the movie did not hit the theaters until 1943, with Hughes fighting the Legion of Decency’s “condemned” rating much of that time. The movie produced was 117 minutes. The movie shown was 103 minutes. Wow!

I’m not sure when the Legion of Decency lost its clout, then its standing as the semi-official private censor. I think it remained in existence until the Motion Picture Association of America took over the job with the rating system we know today, sometime in the late 1960s. While it lasted, though, it was effective. Because the studios had to reckon with the Catholic Church putting a major dent in their bottom line, they self-censored right up to the edge, and when necessary trimmed back to get to the edge. The Baptists, Muslims and Orthodox rabbinate did not have to do any censoring because the Catholics were a big enough body to get the job done for everyone. Hollywood of course chafes under any kind of censorship, but much preferred to do the job itself rather than have the churches do it. The MPAA established its credibility, elbowing aside the churches once and for all, by handing out “X” ratings to films like “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969, because of the profane language.

It is probably time for the churches to elbow their way back in. The job today is much bigger, because of the diversity of the entertainment industry and explosion of cable tv and the Internet. The nature of capitalism is that if there is legal money on the table, somebody is going to try to get it. It has gotten to the point, now, where studios actually add unnecessary profanity, to assure their films will get “lower” ratings, as kids have become so jaded with the existing fare. Let me be the first to suggest to you practicing Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews that you pool your resources and intelligence to establish an ecumenical Legion of Decency, which would cover motion pictures, television shows, popular music lyrics, video games, and anything else you can agree might be suitable for screening. This really is a job for spiritual leaders whose judgment will really directly affect only their flocks. Non-believers will hate the process, because there will be much less money on the table for prurient productions.

Two years ago, remember, the Southern Baptists took a shot at punishing Disney by announcing a boycott of all Disney productions, because the studio was cranking out “R” rated films. The boycott may have had a teeny effect, but it cannot be successful in really changing behavior of producers unless it discriminates between a Disney “R” film and Disneyland. And it needs the mass of other religious groups to reach critical mass -- to the point where, at the margin, producers are taking out the unnecessary sex and violence in order to get through the Legion’s screen. At first, Hollywood would be horrified at the prospect, but on second thought, perhaps it wouldn’t. They might actually prefer dealing with a coalition of religious leaders rather than an empowered Federal Trade Commission.