Tennessee lawmakers set sights on violent video games

Tuesday, February 29, 2000

Two Tennessee lawmakers are taking aim at violent video games and other media products, introducing legislation preventing the sale of such material to minors.

The “Tennessee 21st Century Media Market Responsibility Act of 2000,” filed last month by state Sen. Jeff Miller and state Rep. Dwayne Bunch, would require a state-approved rating system for video games and impose criminal charges for those who sell violent material to minors.

Senate Bill 2232 requires that the public be made aware of “the nature, context, and intensity of depictions of violence in audio and visual media products.” The companion measure is House Bill 2158.

The bills would require labels to address the nature, context, and intensity of the depictions of violence and the “totality of all depictions of violence” in the product.

The labels would specify a minimum age for the purchase and use of such products.

Under the bill, manufacturers, producers, sellers and other providers of interactive video games, motion pictures and sound recording products, such as music CDs, may submit a “joint proposal” for a labeling system to the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Children and Youth and the Department of Children's Services

The committee would then determine whether the submitted labeling system complied with the legislation.

Then, 180 days after the committee begins reviewing the labeling system, the committee and the Department of Children's Services “shall issue a labeling system … which may include such modifications of the proposal as the committee and the department consider appropriate.”

Another provision in the measure provides that one year after enactment of the legislation, no person may manufacture, package for sale or distribute any of the above-mentioned products “unless the product or service bears a label in accordance with the labeling system.”

“I don't believe we can seriously argue the fact that this virtual violence that we find on some of these video games dulls our sensitivity to the sanctity of life,” Miller said.

The Motion Picture Association of America and IDSA, an organization representing entertainment software companies, say the legislation would violate the constitutional guarantee of free speech.

Those who break the law would face up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine. Repeat offenders would be punished by up to 11 months, 29 days in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.

Larry Ottinger, senior staff attorney with the People for the American Way, criticized the proposal, calling it “bizarre.” “This measure would likely infringe on and chill constitutionally protected expression.”

Robert O'Neil, founder of the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, calls the legislation “very strange.”

“There is no attempt in this measure to define violence,” O'Neil said. Furthermore, the bill “delegates the whole process of coming up with the rating system to an industry committee. There needs to be substantially more guidance from the Legislature on this virtually impossible task.”

O'Neil pointed out that requiring such comprehensive labeling can cause First Amendment problems. “Requiring any element in any advertisement for a constitutionally protected product or service is questionable,” he said.

He also says the bills rely on the myth of voluntary compliance, similar to federal legislation on the V-chip. “This would not be voluntary, but done with a government gun pointed at your head.”

The Senate bill was referred on Feb. 15 to the Senate Commerce Committee, which has not yet set a hearing date.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.