Entertainment reps, retailers keep watchful eye on state legislation

Wednesday, February 24, 1999

Although the entertainment industry recently beat back bills in Georgia and North Dakota designed to label some forms of music, movies or other media as “harmful to minors,” free-speech advocates warn that other restrictive legislation is on the way.

“I think this is going to be a busy session once again,” said Joel Flatow, governmental affairs director for the Recording Industry Association of America. “I think advocates of free speech and opponents of government intervention will have their work cut out for them.”

Despite the content ratings and warnings already sponsored by industry groups such as RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America, dozens of state legislatures each year consider imposing additional restrictions on various entertainment media. Last year, industry and grass-roots lobbying defeated more than a dozen bills.

So far this year, the entertainment industry has staved off two such efforts. On Feb. 12, the North Dakota Senate voted 26-22 to defeat a bill that would have restricted the sale of music to minors, a measure some lawmakers said would be unconstitutional.

North Dakota's SB 2384 would have enabled cities to pass ordinances restricting the sale of material that is considered “harmful to minors.” The legislation was aimed at music about sex, violence, suicide, racism, drinking and drug use.

In Georgia, Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Decatur, stalled action on his HB 104 — legislation that would prohibit the sale of music recordings with parental-advisory labels to minors — to give the recording industry a chance to demonstrate how it discourages individuals under age 18 from buying labeled music.

But there is more to come. Three bills, introduced elsewhere, include:

  • Michigan's SB 239, a bill that would, if passed, require parental warnings on tickets and advertising for concerts by performers whose albums have earned parental-advisory stickers. Two similar bills sponsored by Sen. Dale Shugars, R-Portage, failed in previous sessions.
  • Washington state's HB 1984, a bill designed to make concerts, movies, publications, sexual devices and other items deemed “harmful to minors” available only to individuals above the age of 17.
  • Illinois' HB 600, a bill that would allow cities and counties to apply their own community standards in determining whether material sold or performed was obscene. The House Judiciary Criminal Law Committee plans to hold a hearing on the bill on Feb. 26.

Michigan's Shugars says his bill merely echoes the voluntary system the recording industry has already put in place. He says the bill doesn't restrict any concert performances but merely provides a tool to help parents.

Sponsors of the other bills — Illinois Rep. James Fowler, D-Harrisburg, and Washington Rep. Marc Boldt, R-Olympia — didn't return repeated calls.

Free-speech advocates criticize community-standards legislation because what is acceptable in Chicago “won't play in Peoria.”

In a statement prepared for Feb. 26's hearing, Robert Doyle, executive director of the Illinois Library Association, said the possibility of more than 100 different definitions of obscenity will wreak havoc on libraries and the distribution of books.

“Collections might have to be separated and library users' residences monitored by the county,” Doyle wrote. “The differing definitions of obscenity will present administrative and public relations difficulties when constituents become frustrated and angry at these new restrictions and distinctions.”

Vans Stevenson, senior vice president of state legislation for MPAA, agreed with Doyle and said that community-standards laws would “create a patchwork quilt of inconsistent standards.”

But Stevenson says the entertainment industry already has adopted voluntary standards that work well in informing parents about the types of movies and music their children seek. In addition, Stevenson says there are other “gatekeepers” such as music retailers, video store workers and theater owners who often check identification to make sure minors aren't buying adult-rated materials.

RIAA's Flatow says that both the music and movie industries sponsor ongoing educational programs to inform parents of the MPAA's ratings and the recording industry's parental-advisory program.

“We'll continue to try to improve the system and get the word out however we can to get parents involved in the music choices of their kids,” he said. “Certainly government intervention doesn't help that cause.”

Educational programs aside, Flatow says he's confident that his group and others can defeat the bills.

“I think now we have some history on record of these bills being a bad idea,” Flatow said. “I hope that has resonated with legislators and the public [even as] the industry continues to be responsible about getting information [out] about the advisory program.”

Past legislative efforts that are absent so far this year are divestiture bills designed to take state investments and pension funds out of companies that own recording labels which release music advocating the use of drugs, alcohol or violence. Last year, lawmakers rejected such bills in Virginia, Maryland and California, and the courts overturned a divestiture law in Texas.

“We have not seen any introduced yet,” Flatow said. “But, by the same token, we think there has been a clear message sent that legislation crafted that way is a bad idea. It's something that is misdirected not only on constitutional grounds but also how it plays with handling state investment funds.”