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United States v. A Motion Picture Film Entitled I AM Curious-Yellow

decided: November 26, 1968.


Lumbard, Chief Judge, and Friendly and Hays, Circuit Judges. Friendly, Circuit Judge (concurring). Lumbard, Chief Judge (dissenting).

Author: Hays

HAYS, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from a judgment of the district court, after a jury trial, ordering the forfeiture and confiscation under Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, 19 U.S.C. ยง 1305 (1964)*fn1 of the motion picture entitled "I Am Curious-Yellow." We reverse the judgment on the ground that under standards established by the Supreme Court the showing of the picture cannot be inhibited.

"I Am Curious-Yellow" was produced in Sweden and the dialogue is in Swedish; English subtitles have been added. As with many other contemporary artistic productions there can be a difference of opinion as to what the picture is "about."*fn2 It would perhaps not be demonstrably wrong to say that it is concerned with that subject which has become such a commonplace in contemporary fiction and drama, the search for identity. It is the story of a young girl who is trying to work out her relationship to such political, social, and economic problems as the possibility of a classless society, the acceptance of the Franco regime, and the policy and practice of nonviolence. At one point the girl experiments with oriental religious ritual and meditation. The girl's inter-personal relationships are also pictured, including particularly her relation to her father, presented as an idealist who has become disillusioned and has given up meaningful activity. A fairly large portion of the film is devoted to the relations between the girl and her young lover.

A number of different techniques are employed in the production of the film. For example much of the early part is in terms of "cinema verite," showing the girl asking questions on subjects of public importance of the ordinary man or woman in the street. The problem of the nature of reality is suggested by passages representing the girl's fantasies and by the injection into the story of material concerning the making of the picture itself, such as the director's relations with the leading actress.

There are a number of scenes which show the young girl and her lover nude. Several scenes depict sexual intercourse under varying circumstances, some of them quite unusual. There are scenes of oral-genital activity.

It seems to be conceded that the sexual content of the film is presented with greater explicitness than has been seen in any other film produced for general viewing. The question for decision is whether, going farther in this direction than any previous production, the film exceeds the limits established by the courts.

The government argues with considerable cogency that the standards by which motion pictures are to be judged may be different from those that are used in the case of books. It points out that a motion picture reproduces actual conduct so that it can be seen and heard. Books are read by individuals in private, whereas motion pictures are viewed in public. Nudity and sexual activity in motion pictures, it is argued, bear a close resemblance to nudity and sexual activity in a public place. Obviously conduct of this type may be forbidden.

No doubt the standards by which motion pictures are to be judged differ in some particulars from those to be applied to books, see Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51, 60-61, 85 S. Ct. 734, 13 L. Ed. 2d 649 (1965); Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 503, 72 S. Ct. 777, 96 L. Ed. 1098 (1952); United States v. One Carton Positive Motion Picture Film Entitled "491," 367 F.2d 889, 907 (2d Cir.1966) (Lumbard, Ch. J., dissenting); but see Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 84 S. Ct. 1676, 12 L. Ed. 2d 793 (1964). Nevertheless the comparison urged by the government between nudity and sexual activity in a public place and the same matters as portrayed in a motion picture such as "I Am Curious" is far fetched. In the motion picture the material is a part of an artistic whole and is united with and related to the story and the characters which are presented. This is vastly different from a sudden unrelated episode taking place in public. The exhibition in a motion picture of an isolated instance of sexual intercourse or of irrelevant nudity, which would indeed be equivalent to public display, could be halted under the established standards, just as could similar material if it appeared in print.

Whatever differences there may be in the application of obscenity standards, a motion picture, like a book, is clearly entitled to the protection of the first amendment. Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, supra; Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 390 U.S. 676, 88 S. Ct. 1298, 20 L. Ed. 2d 225 (1968). And the test of whether a motion picture is to be condemned is the three-fold test stated in A Book Named "John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" v. Atty. Gen. of Com. of Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413, 418, 86 S. Ct. 975, 977, 16 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1966):

"Three elements must coalesce: it must be established that (a) the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex; (b) the material is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards relating to the description or representation of sexual matters; and (c) the material is utterly without redeeming social value."

The issue of the obscenity of "I Am Curious" was submitted to the jury under this three-fold test and the jury found the picture obscene. However, in our view obscenity vel non is not an issue of fact with respect to which the jury's finding has its usual conclusive effect. It is rather an issue of constitutional law that must eventually be decided by the court. As Mr. Justice Harlan said in Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 497-98, 77 S. Ct. 1304, 1316, 1 L. Ed. 2d 1498 (1957) (concurring and dissenting):

"If 'obscenity' is to be suppressed, the question whether a particular work is of that character involves not really an issue of fact but a question of constitutional judgment of the most sensitive and delicate kind. Many juries might find that Joyce's 'Ulysses' or Boccaccio's 'Decameron' was obscene, and yet the conviction of a defendant for selling either book would raise, for me, the gravest constitutional problems, for no such verdict could ...

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