Lawmakers, citizen groups step up efforts to
monitor entertainment industry
First Amendment Center
For years, parents and citizen groups have said they're frustrated
by what they characterize as declining morality and good taste in
the nation's music, films, television programs and other entertainment
One citizen activist C. Delores Tucker, chairwoman of the
National Political Council of Black Women says that, because
the entertainment industry won't do anything to curb what she claims
is its negative influence on youth, government must get involved.
"We simply want some means or measure to stop the classic 'yelling
fire in a crowded theater,'" Tucker testified at a Senate music
hearing last year. "We want to bring a return of civilized discourse."
And many lawmakers are responding. Some of the most recent efforts
to impose governmental regulation on the entertainment industry:
- Ratings-based legislation was introduced in more than a dozen
state legislatures during the last year. Georgia, Washington,
Tennessee and several other states this session came close to
passing statutes forbidding the sale of music bearing warning
labels to minors.
- The Michigan Senate considered and eventually dropped a bill
that would enable local officials to restrict minors' attendance
at concerts they labeled "harmful to minors."
- The Federal Communications Commission approved the Television
Parental Guidelines, setting the industry-drafted code as the
official rating standard for the v-chip, a device designed to
block unwanted television programming.
- The Senate held two hearings on music. Last November (1997),
Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., chaired
a hearing on the effects of violent music lyrics on children.
In June, Brownback led a hearing examining the effectiveness of
the Recording Industry Association of America's parental advisory
Monroe Price, a professor of communications law at New York's Yeshiva
University, says the recent efforts at rating entertainment for
the purposes of restriction seem to be "a bit of a craze."
"Ratings can be a useful tool, but suddenly they're discovered
as a potentially magical answer to political, social and cultural
issues," Price told said "There's been the creation of a sort of
groundswell of 'something needs to be done because there's too much
violence, too much perversity.'"
But then there's the First Amendment.
Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against
Censorship, says ratings and labels offer the perennial "quick fix,"
but she warns that even voluntary efforts "aren't as innocuous as
A "voluntary" program may seem to come from willing industry participants,
but Bertin notes that compliance is usually due to significant pressure
"The TV rating system is exemplary of how this process works,"
Bertin said. "The industry has this sort of threat working over
their heads they better do it or else."
Last year, after NBC refused to comply fully with the industry's
voluntary rating system, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would
seek legislation to make sure the network complied.
McCain said he could introduce measures "to channel violent programming
to later hours, as well as [urge] the Federal Communications Commission
to examine in a full evidentiary hearing the renewal application
of any television station not implementing the revised TV ratings
McCain later backed down from his statement. But some controls
are already in place, thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996,
which mandated that new television sets sold after July 1999 be
equipped with v-chips. The law also required the FCC to establish
a rating system if the television industry didn't establish one
of its own.
Last April, the FCC approved the industry-drafted Television
Parental Guidelines. But as officials in the recording industry
can attest, the creation of a rating system won't appease everyone.
When the RIAA launched its parental dvisory program in 1985, officials
there say they were responding to public demands to better inform
listeners of the subject matter of music lyrics.
The labels voluntarily placed by recording companies on
music they deem too explicit for children were designed,
in part, to head off threats of even tougher government restrictions.
Thirteen years later, many critics Senator Brownback, for
one say they aren't satisfied.
Seeking a way to curb what he considers to be highly offensive
and potentially dangerous music, Brownback sponsored two Senate
hearings this session to spark interest in revamping the labels.
He has stopped short of legislation, but is instead hoping the recording
industry will improve the ratings voluntarily.
"Our goal must be not to coerce but to persuade," Brownback said
in a recent speech. "We should aim to change hearts and minds, rather
than laws. Analyzing, evaluating and, sometimes, criticizing lyrics
is not only compatible with but essential to liberty."
While the First Amendment protects freedom of expression, Brownback
and others say it doesn't shield the entertainment industry from
"We simply want a level playing field so parents can know what
their children are watching" and hearing, says Charlie Gilreath,
publisher of the Family Entertainment Guide, a new magazine
devoted to examining music, film and television.
But free-speech advocates say input must come from citizen and
social-interest groups, not from government officials like Brownback.
When rating programs surface after lawmakers make demands, they
say the results are essentially de facto censorship by the government.
Price of Yeshiva University says that view is simplistic, observing
that it would be unrealistic to expect the First Amendment not to
provoke "a lot of pulling and heaving from government and social
Price adds that ratings raise First Amendment concerns when government
crosses the line and forces its agenda.
"That's the biggest problem: When does government cross the line?"
Price asks. "Does it cross the line when the president stands up
and says we should be responsible for our children? Does it cross
the line when Senator Lieberman says it's time for social groups
to pressure the music and television industry? Is it a violation
when congressmen hold hearings to try to find a correlation between
violence and speech?"
Price contends the line hasn't been breached yet, "but I have a
greater tolerance than a lot of people."
Solange Bitol, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties
Union, says Americans can't be tolerant, especially when history
shows that additional "voluntary" ratings and measures often surface
in the wake of hearings similar to the ones Brownback sponsored.
"We're always concerned about these 'voluntary' issues and congressional
coercion tactics or so-called 'proceedings,'" Bitol tells says.
"Congress seems so determined to expand the government's role into
family decisions. Violence and profanity in music and movies are
symptoms of larger problems they refuse to address.
"Instead of trying to sweep these problems under the rugs of censorship,
we should try to seek real solutions," she says.
But ratings offer part of the solution, says Gail Markel of the
Interactive Digital Software Association, which established a board
four years ago to rate video game software and online games. Markel
says ratings offer parents information in much the same way that
food content labels do.
"Ratings aren't about censorship," Markel tells says. "It's about
providing information so parents and consumers can do their jobs.
I think the industry is in danger if it can't show it provides that
"The First Amendment is not a winning argument on its own," she
says. "It is a winning one coupled with an industry understanding
of its responsibilities."