Entertainment industry wields First Amendment to stave off House amendments

Friday, June 18, 1999

WASHINGTON — Anxious to defeat new violence labels and possible sales restrictions, entertainment industry lobbyists whipped up a First Amendment argument that found a sympathetic audience among a large number of House Republicans.

A 48-hour lobbying blitz by the rich industry ended in success yesterday when the House defeated a legislative provision that would have required labeling of violent content in entertainment products such as video games.

On June 16, the House also defeated a provision that would have curtailed youth access to explicit sexual or violent material in books, movies and other entertainment genres. Both measures were considered as amendments to the Consequences for Juvenile Offenders Act.

However, some free-speech advocates were disappointed that the House, on a voice vote last night, managed to amend the act to require public schools and libraries to install Internet filters on their computers.

Meanwhile entertainment industry lobbyists said they borrowed a page from gun lobbyists, who frequently appeal to the Constitution's Second Amendment right to bear arms to argue against gun control legislation.

“One of the things that we say around here is if you like the Second Amendment, you're going to love the First Amendment,” said Judith Platt, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Publishers.

But lobbyists expect another tense battle soon — next time in the Senate.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., yesterday introduced the 21st Century Media Responsibility Act, legislation that would create a uniform labeling system for violent media products, and also require retailers to limit the access of children to adult-rated products with high doses of violence.

“We are seeking to change the behavior of a multi-billion dollar industry that too often seems locked in deep denial,” Lieberman said in a press conference. The industry “has shown little inclination to acknowledge there is a problem with its products, let alone work with us to find reasonable solutions to reduce the threat of media violence to children.”

Last month, McCain and Lieberman, along with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., sponsored a bill ordering a federal study to determine the impact that violent movies, music and video games have on children and whether the entertainment industry markets such products to young audiences.

The Senate voted unanimously on May 12 to approve the study.

As for the mandatory ratings bill, it mirrors the one advanced by Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich. Both argued that the government requires labeling on food, and should do likewise on sources of violence.

“Children are killing children,” Wamp said. “I've had enough of it. I'm going to side with parents today.”

But other House members weren't convinced.

Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., who voted against the provisions, said the constitutional argument was effective among many conservatives.

“Many of the conservatives wanted to do something to keep these extremely violent videos and sexually explicit movies away from young people,” Hutchinson said. “But if we're having a battle to protect the Second Amendment, it's also about the First Amendment.”

A coalition of media groups — including publishers, booksellers, broadcasters and movie studios — used letters, phone calls and face-to-face meetings to make its pitch. The industry donates more than $7 million per election cycle to federal candidates and political parties.

“We worked it hard,” said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., who now heads the Association of American Publishers, signed a letter with Avin Mark Domnitz, head of the American Booksellers Association. She then sent the letter to all 435 House members, attaching a personal note to lawmakers she used to serve with.

The letter called the legislation “a blatantly unconstitutional effort by Congress to address the problem of juvenile violence by destroying basic First Amendment rights of young people and adults.”

Although lawmakers turned away restrictions on the entertainment industry, House members yesterday approved by voice vote adding the proposed Children's Internet Protection Act as an amendment to the juvenile crime bill.

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Franks, R-N.J., the act would require public schools and libraries to block Internet pornography on all of their computers. The filters would also have to block material considered “harmful to minors” when a child is using the computers.

Free-speech advocates say Internet filtering not only infringes on library patrons' First Amendment rights but is extremely unreliable in blocking only offensive material.

But Franks disagrees. In a statement faxed to the First Amendment Center, he said: “This amendment will ensure that our children can take advantage of this revolutionary learning tool without being assaulted by material that is not only inappropriate but could be dangerous.”