FILM CORNER - Sick Sickies: A Look at the Notorious Film Censorship Board of Maryland
Updated: Sep 7
At the turn of the 20th Century, the world was experiencing a new form of medium: Motion Pictures. Many of these motion pictures tended to be short clips of events or short stories to entertain the people who would go see them. However, in the mid-1910s, many cities began creating censor boards to, in their belief, protect the public from what they saw as immoral or a danger to the public. This fear of films giving people ideas led to several states to create a State Board of Censors, where filmmakers and distributors were required to submit their films to a group of people appointed by state leaders to view the film to either edit it for the public or ban it entirely.
Even though many of the censor boards disbanded before the eventual creation of the voluntary Film Rating System by the Motion Picture Association of America in 1968, one film censor board stood firm until its disbandment in 1981. This was the Maryland State Board of Censors.
Created in 1916, the Maryland State Board of Censors was formed, and within its 65 year run, it ran under a strict rule of "if a film does not have our approval, it cannot be shown in our state." Under strict guidelines, every film viewed by the board that had content that was inappropriate (mostly involving anything sexual) had scenes or certain shots cut. For films that were pornographic (or what they considered pornographic), they were banned.
Even though theater owner, Ronald Freedman, challenged the Maryland State Board of Censors on their rule in 1965 in a Supreme Court case (Freedman v. Maryland) that eventually led to many censor boards across the country getting disbanded, Maryland's censor board still remained.
The Maryland State Board of Censors even had some pretty staunch members, especially Mary Avara. Avara was appointed as a State Board Censor by Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes in 1960, and remained a member of the Board of Censors until its eventual disbandment. Her staunch views on film censorship, especially her views against pornography, made her famous in Maryland to the point where she was even featured on talk shows. One filmmaker that she despised was John Waters, a underground Baltimore filmmaker whose films (which included Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble) were considered trash by many, especially Avara (whom Waters wrote a couple of pages about in his book, Shock Value).
On June 27, 1981, the Maryland State Board of Censors was officially disbanded after approving its last movie, The Great Muppet Caper.
What surprises me learning about this censor board was how long it lasted. The notoriety of this same censor board eventually led to the creation of a 2018 documentary, Sickies Making Films, which discusses the history of film censorship in the United States. Even though there is still film censorship across the world, I am glad that we are one of the countries that allows films to be seen as the creators intended.