Given how its residents – and opportunistic politicians – chased the pre-Hollywood film scene out of the city back in the day, it may not come as a surprise to many that Jacksonville was also behind a Supreme Court case involving censorship of movies.
It might surprise you, however, to learn that this happened as recently as 1975. That’s when the Court delivered its decision in the case of Erznoznik vs. City of Jacksonville.
The case began when Richard Erznoznik, manager of the local University Drive-In Theatre, held a showing of the 1972 film Class of ’74 at the theater. The film, which was rated R, featured scenes that displayed “female buttocks and bare breasts.”
Unfortunately for Erznoznik, doing so violated a city ordinance that policed the display of nudity on drive-in theater screens. Here is the exact wording of that ordinance:
“It shall be unlawful and it is hereby declared a public nuisance for any ticket seller, ticket taker, usher, motion picture projection machine operator, manager, owner, or any other person connected with or employed by any drive-in theater in the City to exhibit, or aid or assist in exhibiting, any motion picture, slide, or other exhibit in which the human male or female bare buttocks, human female bare breasts, or human bare pubic areas are shown, if such motion picture, slide, or other exhibit is visible from any public street or public place. Violation of this section shall be punishable as a Class C offense.”Jacksonville Municipal Code 330.313
Notably, the ordinance banned all films that featured nudity – including educational or otherwise non-erotic depictions – and allowed for the prosecution of almost anyone involved in showing the film.
Sure enough, local authorities moved to prosecute Erznoznik for his violation of the ordinance, which carried a maximum penalty of a nominal fine and no jail time. In turn, Erznoznik arranged for prosecution to be delayed while he initiated a legal challenge of the city’s ordinance on the grounds that it violated his First Amendment rights.
In its legal defense, the city noted that the theater’s screen, which was located along University Boulevard near Fort Caroline Road, was visible from at least two public streets as well as a nearby church. It argued that the ordinance was necessary to protect children, to prevent people from being offended, and to ensure that drivers on nearby streets aren’t distracted by theater screens.
That argument proved sufficient at the state level, but when Erznoznik appealed their decision, the Supreme Court opted to hear the case.
The case was argued in front of the Court in February of 1975. In June, it rendered its decision to strike down the Jax ordinance by a vote of 6-3. Justice Lewis Powell, who had originally planned to uphold the ordinance, ended up writing the majority opinion in which he was joined by justices William O. Douglas, William J. Brennan, Potter Stewart, Thurgood Marshall, and Harry Blackmun; Douglas also wrote a concurring opinion. Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Byron White each wrote dissenting opinions; Justice William Rehnquist joined Burger in his dissent.
The Court’s justification for striking down the ordinance, which was referred to as “both overbroad and underinclusive,” was informed by the city’s defense strategy for it. Powell notes in his opinion that, if the city was truly trying to protect children, the ordinance would be specific to sexually explicit nudity rather than all forms of it and displays of violence would also be included. Likewise, he opined that if the ordinance was intended as a traffic-calming measure, it would bar the display of any film visible from public streets – not just those deemed to be sexually explicit.
Furthermore, the Court argued that anyone offended by the content on a theater screen when passing by it has the option of diverting their gaze away from it.
The Court’s decision in Erznoznik vs. City of Jacksonville marked an important victory for free speech both in Jacksonville and nationwide, but its direct impact was rather short-lived as drive-in theaters waned in popularity around the same time. The University Drive-In was sold off the same decade and its property has since been redeveloped as a public library branch.