Freedom of speech: Rated ‘R’ for restricted

Thursday, July 19, 2001

A few weeks ago, the British Board of Film Classification scissored a scene depicting the capture of a bird from the acclaimed movie “Before Night Falls.” The board explained that the bird appeared to be “clearly distressed.”

We Americans probably should think twice before chortling at the quaintness of British sensitivities. We have developed our own quite tortured system for scissoring offense from our entertainment. In fact, those demanding more restrictions on the evils of entertainment have flogged time-challenged and guilt-ridden parents into full panic.

We are assured that just about every word our children hear or image they see poses a real and direct threat to their welfare. Just one consequence of that panic is that, as a society, we have become obsessed with the idea of turning voluntary rating and labeling systems for entertainment media into cudgels with which to pound the freedom out of expression.

For those who want to channel and control what we see and hear, the beauty in such an approach is that it compels the entertainment industry to censor itself — as well as the rest of us — while government officials can piously assert their full allegiance to the First Amendment.

The modern model for this so-called self-regulation is the motion picture industry's rating system created in 1968 to stave off governmental threats of censorship. Facing the same sort of coercion, television in 1998 bowed to a similar system — though much more demanding — for rating programming and implementing the V-chip. The video game industry also has a rating system.

For its part, the recording industry has implemented a parental advisory labeling system for records and CDs. The hip-hop industry, after members of Congress criticized its fare during a conference last month, pledged to go even further by labeling its marketing materials, also.

No one knows where all this will stop. There are a number of rating schemes advanced for Internet content, including news sites. Even public library boards around the nation are being pressured to rate books for the sake of the children. Some members of Congress are pushing the idea of a universal rating system applied to a variety of media.

There is, of course, a certain appeal in the argument for rating systems. They provide information with which parents and adult consumers can decide what and whom they will patronize for their entertainment. The producers of entertainment can decide what to produce based on what patrons are flocking to. And government officials can keep a respectful distance from involvement in constitutionally protected activities of both the patrons and the producers.

Unfortunately, the argument for rating systems has more appeal than the experience.

The problem with voluntary self-regulation, it seems, is that it's just too — well, voluntary. Therefore, rating systems just don't reach the desired effect for those who would dictate what we see in the comfort of a theater or listen to in the privacy of our homes. To be truly effective, these systems must honor the demands of pressure groups with an agenda rather than the rights of American citizens with entertainment escapism on their minds.

That is why we hear a constant clamor for continuous tweaking of the systems once they are in place. Activists and academics want to take it further, to expand it to ever more media, and especially to find a way to punish producers who don't regulate themselves enough — voluntarily.

There are plenty of reasons for those who produce our entertainment to question their rating systems.

A Maryland mother has filed a lawsuit against Trick Daddy's record companies. She says that the “Thugs Are Us” CD wasn't properly labeled for explicit lyrics and thus is in violation of the state's consumer protection laws.

U.S. Senators Lieberman, Kohl, Clinton and Byrd have introduced the Media Marketing Accountability Act, which would punish the producers of entertainment if their marketing campaigns don't appear to conform to their voluntary rating system.

In fact, a number of members of Congress find it fine sport to hold hearings and publicly harangue Hollywood for making movies and music that don't meet their tastes or standards or live up to their definitions of the producers' own rating systems.

Even the innocuous G rating for family viewing isn't immune from attack. Last month, Pediatrics journal published a report on the hazards for children in viewing G-rated movies. Two Harvard researchers reviewed 81 animated movies from 1937 to 2000. They found that nearly half depict alcohol or tobacco consumption. (Examples: a rodent Sherlock Holmes packs a pipe in the “Great Mouse Detective” and canine characters belly up to a bar in “All Dogs Go to Heaven.”) A significant portion of these movies, the researchers warned, failed to portray the long-term consequences of the use of alcohol or tobacco.

That is the problem and the danger in this approach to reshaping our entertainment to reflect the fears and prejudices of the most vocal among us.

What is put forth as a way to help parents and protect the First Amendment rights of producers and consumers delivers on neither promise. Rating systems insulate parents from responsibility and their kids from the world. They coerce producers into voluntary regulation that converts easily into leverage for laws and lawsuits. They reduce entertainment fare for adults to what is suitable for children.

Movies and music and other forms of expressive entertainment are not the same things as food, drugs or widgets. They are not packages of ingredients that can be listed, measured and their effects predicted. They are packages of sounds, images, words, concepts and combinations of media whose serendipitous impact on an individual simply cannot be foretold, as much as some of us might like it to be that way.

Rating and labeling systems raise significant if largely unattended questions about life in a free and open society. How does coerced action translate as voluntary action? How can a rating system be anything but crude, awkward and wrong when measuring the content of any sort of entertainment? How, in fact, does one put a restrictive label on expressive freedom?

More to the point, how does one rationalize the sorry spectacle of American citizens being summoned before a congressional tribunal to explain and justify the exercise of their constitutional rights?

The First Amendment promise of real freedom is challenged each time we are forced to defend it before those sworn to protect it. It is diminished each time we are commanded to justify its existence to those who say they are its guardians. It is damaged — perhaps irreparably — each time we are told we must “earn” the right to its protections by submitting to a muzzle we design for ourselves.

If, in the face of all that, we insist on clinging to the idea of rating and labeling our own freedom of expression, perhaps the time has come to apply the same approach to public discourse on this issue. Why not put a triple-X rating on the political posturing that includes indecent motives, insensitivity to the Constitution, or violence done to fact and reason?

Without such a system in place, the First Amendment will continue to be, like the bird in the movie, clearly distressed.

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