I had a discussion with a family member over the phone the other day about modern movies and obscenity. “Joe, have you heard about the movie 50 Shades of Grey coming out?” Because of my female friends and acquaintances I have some passing familiarity with the subject matter. “Do you think it could be considered obscenity? Some people are saying it is kinda like pornography for women.” Inquired my family member. Well that is some food for thought…
It turns out that city of Phoenix has banned a movie before because of obscenity. Could it try to do it again? Using the movie 50 Shades of Grey as an example, I will analyze if a commercial movie with national appeal could be considered obscenity or not.
Phoenix’s Last Picture Show Ban
Almost forty-one years ago, the city of Phoenix, Arizona banned The Last Picture Show from its theaters because of obscenity. BBS Productions, Inc v. Purcell, 360 F. Supp 801 (D. Ariz 1973). The Phoenix City Attorney objected to “total frontal nudity of a female swimmer,” lasting approximately four seconds. Id. Apparently the scene in question involved Cybil Shepherd skinny-dipping. The film received an R (restricted) from the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). The Phoenix City Attorney said the film could be played if that four seconds of nudity was deleted from the film. Id. Phoenix claimed the movie violated Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-537 (1971), which defined and banned obscenity. “It is unlawful for any person knowingly to place explicit sexual material upon public display, or knowingly to fail to take prompt action to remove such a display from property . . under his control after learning of its existence.” Id. (quoting Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-537 (1971)).