Most people admit that propaganda is pretty common in the United States in one form or another, but all out censorship is pretty rare. Freedom of speech is a hallmark of American values, and though private institutions may disallow one thing, or groups of people might discourage another, it is still generally legal to say whatever you want. Still, you get in murky waters when you’re talking about the distribution of entertainment, as it’s tied in with both the government and monopoly-like institutions that will effectively have the final say as to what type of stuff is put out there.

For example—and many would argue that it’s not all bad—there are limits on what kind of pornography you can show. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can also fine broadcast stations (TV or radio) for using certain profane words or displaying lewd content, and they can charge up to $375,000 per offense. More complicated, colleges—both private and state—often restrict what their students can and cannot do or say.

These issues of censorship in the modern world can be a hot-button topic, but America’s history is short and you don’t have to go back far to see far more extreme examples of modern-day controversies. The “Motion Picture Production Code,” more commonly known as the Hays Code, was a system of censorship not enforced by government, but adopted by major studios in order to avoid government regulation. You can already see how this was a difficult issue at the time, especially since it practically governed everything that appeared on the screen and movies would NOT get made without going through this code first. The code of censorship lasted from approximately 1934–1968, when it was replaced with our current MPAA rating system that does not enforce anything, it just rates.

The featured images above depict two films. On the left you have a scene from “The Sign of the Cross (1932),” one of many films that stirred controversy and spurred the Hays Code into existence in ’34; the image on the right is from “The 39 Steps (1935)” by Alfred Hitchcock. Now, Hitchcock found creative ways to push the boundaries of the code, but he was still very clearly bound by it.

To give you an idea of how stringent the Hays Code was, here were some things you absolutely could not show judging by the code proposed earlier in 1927:

  • Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled
  • Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture
  • The illegal traffic in drugs
  • Any inference of sex perversion
  • White slavery
  • Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races)
  • Sex hygiene and venereal diseases
  • Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette
  • Children’s sex organs
  • Ridicule of the clergy
  • Willful offense to any nation, race or creed

These were the stricter rules, known as the “Don’ts.” There were also “Be Carefuls” that talked about things like how to treat the flag, how to depict certain distasteful crimes and how to depict women in general. It was generally accepted that you could not kiss on-screen for longer than 3 seconds.

Library of Congress

As you can imagine, people don’t like being forced into boxes—artists least of all. If you tell them to do something, right or wrong, they’re more likely to pick something on the list of “don’ts” and see how they can get away with it. For example, it became an entire art form to find snarky ways to tell the audience that two people on-screen had just had sex, without actually showing the deed itself or breaking any of the other “rules.”