January 23, 2020
Day 23 of 366
January 23rd is the twenty-third day of the year. It is Bounty Day on the Pitcairn Islands, the destination of the HMS Bounty mutineers.
Historical items of note:
- In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang was coronated as the Hongwu Emperor, thus starting the Ming dynasty rule over China for the next three centuries.
- In 1570, James Stewart, the 1st Earl of Moray and regent for the infant King James VI of Scotland, was assassinated by firearm. This was the first recorded instance of such an event.
- In 1571, the Royal Exchange opened in London.
- In 1737, John Hancock was born. He was an American general, politician, first Governor of Massachusetts, and owner of the largest signature on the Declaration of Independence.
- In 1846, slavery was abolished in Tunisia.
- In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was awarded her M.D. by the Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York. She was the first female doctor in the United States.
- In 1909, the RMS Republic became the first ship to use the CQD distress signal after colliding with the SS Florida off the coast of Massachusetts. The Republic was a White Star Line passenger ship and it sank the next day. Six people died in the event.
- In 1941, Charles Lindbergh testified before the United States Congress in support of a neutrality pact with Adolf Hitler. As an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve and a Medal of Honor recipient, he was publicly rebuked by President Franklin Roosevelt for his actions, prompting Lindbergh to resign his commission. He later supported the war as a civilian flight consultant after the attack on Pearl Harbor but did not take up arms.
- In 1943, actor Gil Gerard was born. He portrayed Buck Rogers in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
- In 1944, actor Rutger Hauer was born.
- In 1950, Richard Dean Anderson was born. His best-known roles are in MacGyver and the Stargate franchise.
- In 1957, Walter Frederick Morrison sold the rights to his flying disc to the Wham-O toy company. It was later marketed as the Frisbee.
- In 1975, Barney Miller premiered on ABC.
- In 1960, the bathyscape USS Trieste broke depth records by descending to 35,797 feet (10,911 meters) in the Pacific Ocean.
- In 1962, English composer David Arnold was born.
- In 1964, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified. It prohibited the use of poll taxes in national elections.
- Also in 1964, actress Mariska Hargitay was born.
- In 1973, President Richard Nixon announced a peace accord with Vietnam.
- In 1974, actress Tiffani Thiessen was born.
- In 1977, Roots premiered on ABC.
- In 1983, The A-Team premiered on NBC.
- In 1986, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its first members: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.
- In 1997, Madeline Albright became the first woman to serve as United States Secretary of State.
- In 2002, American journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan. He was later murdered by his captors.
- In 2003, a very weak signal was detected from Pioneer 10. No usable data could be extracted from this final message.
In 1961, the United States Supreme Court ruled that cities and states had the right to censor films.
To explain this, we need to go back to the 1950s when a Chicago ordinance required that, before being permitted to screen any film in the city, exhibitors submit the film to the police commissioner’s office and pay a license fee. If the film did not meet certain standards, the permit would be denied. A single appeal could be made to the Office of the Mayor, but the mayor’s decision was final.
On May 6, 1955, an exhibitor requested permission to screen Le blé en herbe (The Game of Love), a French film directed by Claude Autant-Lara (based on a novel by Collete) that depicted a sexual relationship between an adult woman and a teenage boy. Unsurprisingly, the police commissioner denied the permit due to indecent content, and the subsequent appeal to Mayor Richard Daley failed. So, the petitioner sued the city in federal court while alleging infringement of First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The case eventually reached the Supreme Court as Times Film Corporation v. City of Chicago, 355 U.S. 35 (1957), and the Court sided with Chicago by citing Alberts v. California from 1957 where Justice William J. Brennan Jr. stated that obscenity was “not within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press” and that the First Amendment was not intended to protect materials that were “utterly without redeeming social importance.”
The Times Film Corporation returned to the scene when they tried to screen Don Juan but refused to submit the film for examination. When the permit was denied, the corporation went back to court on terms of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court eventually took up the case in Times Film Corporation v. City of Chicago, 365 U.S. 43 (1961), and ruled in a similar fashion as the previous case by a 5-4 decision.
Cities and states maintained their ability to censor films.
By 1973, the Court shifted toward a broader interpretation of the First Amendment. Marvin Miller, the owner/operator of a California-based adult film and book company, was arrested in 1971 for sending out brochures to advertise his wares. His case was eventually decided in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), where the Supreme Court redefined its definition of obscenity from that of “utterly without socially redeeming value” to that which lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
As a result, while finding that the sale and distribution of obscene material was not protected under the First Amendment, the three-prong standard (the “Miller test”) was developed to determine if a work should be legitimately subject to state regulation:
- whether the average person, applying contemporary “community standards”, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
- whether the work depicts or describes, in an offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions, as specifically defined by applicable state law; and
- whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
The Miller case provided states greater freedom in prosecuting obscenity cases and has spurred decades of discussion and litigation on the topic, but it also forced the Supreme Court to legally define the term, making it a landmark case on the topic.
The Thing About Today is an effort to look at each day of 2020 with respect to its historical context.
For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.