Free-speech advocates find Lieberman’s record a mixed bag

Thursday, August 10, 2000
Sen. Joseph Lieberman

Vice President Al Gore’s choice of a running mate is raising some
First Amendment warning flags with free-speech advocates.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, has strongly campaigned
against sex and violence on television and in video games and is the co-author
of current federal legislation seeking to label all entertainment violence.

First Amendment advocates seem somewhat concerned.

Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, told the
Freedom Forum Online yesterday that Lieberman’s selection was “good news and
bad news.”

“Certainly he would appear to be preferable to anyone on the
Republican ticket,” she said. “And we’re pleased he has supported public
funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and opposed flag-desecration
(legislation) in the past, both important First Amendment issues.”

On the other hand, she added, “We hope he would be responsive to a
discussion about the important First Amendment implications of some of his
positions on efforts to regulate the entertainment industry, which we’ve

On the Wired News Web site, Declan McCullagh was more direct in
listing some
of Lieberman’s past actions.

“There’s no question that Senator Joseph Lieberman is a traditional
liberal on many issues: He’s pro-choice, loves gun control, and opposes Social
Security privatization,” McCullagh wrote. “But when it comes to demanding
federal action against sex and violence in video games and on TV, Al Gore’s new
running mate is as strident as the most right-wing Republican.”

And on Aug. 8, the day Lieberman’s selection was officially announced
by Gore, the Radio-Television News Directors
Association posted for the first time a 2-year-old
exchange of letters with
Lieberman and author William Bennett over TV news coverage.

Bennett and Lieberman’s letter, which was triggered by a 1998 CBS “60
Minutes” interview with Dr. Jack Kevorkian, said, “The television news
industry, rather than enlightening the populace and informing our public
discourse, is now too often darkening our culture, fouling our public
discourse, and ultimately contributing to the ‘anything-goes’ mentality that
pervades our society.”

It also called on RTNDA to endorse “the resurrection of a voluntary
code of conduct for the television industry.”

RTNDA Executive Director Barbara Cochran, while stressing that her
organization represents journalists and therefore takes no sides on political
issues, said the letter and her response to it were posted now “because we
thought our membership would be interested in it.”

The exchange itself, she recalled, “was a great opportunity to let
them know that most people in TV news operate by standards and take their
responsibilities seriously.”

Lieberman is the co-author, with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain,
of the Media Violence Labeling Act, which they introduced in May. The
legislation aims for a single standardized rating system, to be approved by the
Federal Trade Commission, for violence in all entertainment, including music,
movies, videos and computer games.

Also in May, Lieberman was one of nine senators
urging some of the country’s largest
discount chains to pull violent video games off their shelves or prevent
their sale to anyone younger than 17.

“No single policy, governmental or corporation will eliminate the
serious threat of violence or prevent another Columbine from happening,” the
senators wrote in a letter to top executives at Target, Best Buy, Circuit City
and Kmart. “But we have an obligation to do whatever we can to reduce the
risks, and we are convinced that shielding our children from the hailstorm of
cultural messages and images that glorify and legitimize violence will do just

On CNN’s “Larry King Live” show Aug. 8, Lieberman again explained his

“I watched some stuff that my youngest, my daughter Hana, was watching
when she was five, and I hated the message it was sending her about violence,
and about sex, and about respect and civility,” he explained, according to a
transcript of the show.

“So what we have done is reach out and call out to folks in Hollywood,
and the record industry, the video game industry, television, and say exercise
some self-restraint,” he added.

He also said that Tipper Gore, who led congressional wives in a highly
controversial fight 15 years ago which culminated in voluntary record labeling,
“is going to be great partner in this effort.”

And he added that he believes “with a fierce devotion in the First

But in July 1999, he joined with four other senators and Bennett in an
“Appeal to Hollywood” for a voluntary code of conduct. At the same time, he
told a Capitol Hill news conference that the content of a TV station’s
programming should help determine whether its federal license is renewed.

Then, in September 1999, Lieberman and Bennett singled out some of Fox
television’s new fall shows, including “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Get Real,”
and gave the network a “Silver Sewer” award. In a letter to News Corp. Chairman
Rupert Murdoch, they asked him to use his influence to improve the network’s

In June 1998, after a Senate committee heard testimony from a teacher
that violent rap music may have played a part in the Jonesboro, Ark., school
shootings that left four students and one teacher dead, Lieberman said the
Recording Industry Association of America needed to re-evaluate its labeling
system and should consider providing specific lyrics to help consumers judge
the contents of songs.

“Ultimately, my hope is that we can convince the nation’s major
corporate producers and distributors — Sony, Seagram, EMI, Time Warner
— to draw some lines and to stop profiting from music that is so
repulsive that no newspaper in America would reprint the lyrics,” he said at
the time.

Lieberman’s stance on First Amendment issues may have brought him both
backers and foes. But it has won him at least one award.

In April 1998, the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of
Free Expression gave him one of their Jefferson Muzzles, an award presented
to those who show insensitivity to First Amendment principles.

Lieberman and McCain won it for “threatening NBC and other television
programmers with legislation that would require them to broadcast ‘voluntary’
content-rating codes.”

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