Do ratings weaken the First Amendment?
First Amendment Center
After 15 years of producing heavy metal and rap music, Charlie
Gilreath changed his view of music's influence on children after
a brief car ride with his 11-year-old stepdaughter.
Gilreath says it wasn't the song she was playing Alanis
Morrisette's "You Oughta Know" nor the song's subject matter
oral sex and obsessive love that made him cringe.
It was the fact that his daughter knew all of the words.
"Here's this 11-year-old, and she's singing the song without any
awareness of what the lyrics she sang meant," Gilreath said. "This
kid was posting these and other lyrics on her bedroom wall. She
was getting this information, but she wasn't getting any feedback
from me or her mother."
Finding few resources to help parents judge the content of music,
movies and television programs, Gilreath created the Family Entertainment
Guide, a new magazine devoted to examining music, film and television.
Parents, he says, must persuade the industry to give them the information
they need to make sound decisions.
"This doesn't have to do with censorship," says Gilreath, who would
prefer the entertainment industry respond to parents and other citizens
than to government officials. "It has to do with the average individual's
desire to control the environment in which he lives and how his
family lives, grows and is nourished."
For now, the industry response to government mandates and parental
demands has been to create ratings, usually a system of letters
and numbers to indicate the presence of any adult-oriented content
in an entertainment medium.
Rating systems, supporters say, offer parents some of the tools
they need to monitor what their children listen to and watch. The
need for such information, they say, overrides some First Amendment
But opponents say ratings not only threaten free speech by compelling
the industry to label movies, film and records with content advisories
and symbols but also are so subjective and insubstantial as to be
For instance, says Solange Bitol, legislative counsel of the American
Civil Liberties Union, the PG-13 rating for Eddie Murphy's recent
film "Dr. Dolittle" revealed nothing about the movie's endless bodily
"I don't care how descriptive the ratings are, whether they mention
descriptive dialogue or suggestive sex," Bitol says. "It's like
Cliffs Notes. You can read Cliffs Notes, but you still aren't going
to get the essence of the books."
Bitol says: "Nothing is as good as old-fashioned parenting. You,
as a parent, are obligated to have to sit down with your children
and watch these movies and talk about it with them."
Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy says too many parents, especially
in urban neighborhoods, don't have the time, the energy or the education
to keep up with what their children are doing. While he says something
needs to be done to keep tabs on the music kids listen to, the rapper
stops short of advocating government intervention.
Monroe Price, a communications law professor at New York's Yeshiva
University, says the demand for more information reveals an obscured
First Amendment component in the ratings debate: requiring speech
Price says the First Amendment also allows people to not speak.
For government to force the entertainment industry to place labels
and ratings on its work essentially forces the industry to wrap
speech with more speech about what's contained in the initial speech.
And there is a price tag for that wrap-around speech, Price says.
Concerns surface with ratings and compelled speech
"to the extent that it limits who can speak to only those who can
afford" to get the rating for their film or place the warning sticker
on their record.
Perhaps no rating system has undergone the attacks that the Recording
Industry Association of America's parental advisory program has
borne in recent years. Because of continued criticism from a plethora
of parents and Christian and social groups, the rating program has
been the subject of three Senate hearings in as many years.
Barbara Wyatt, president of the Parents Music Resource Center,
the group that sparked the first Senate hearing on music labeling
in 1985 under the leadership of Tipper Gore and other wives of senators,
says she considers the RIAA program one of "standardized labels
but no standards."
Specifically, Wyatt and others note that the voluntary system enables
each recording company to make its own decisions about which recordings
need the sticker. They say the stickers, which read PARENTAL ADVISORY:
EXPLICIT CONTENT, offer little information about the recording.
Wyatt says the program is so chaotic that no one in the recording
industry keeps track of which recordings get the label and which
ones don't. She says the industry must devise a better parental
advisory program than the one it created a decade ago in response
to pressure from the PMRC.
RIAA officials say the system works. Although the decision to label
remains with the recording companies, RIAA President Hilary Rosen
notes that virtually every album coming under attack by parents
and critics has the sticker on its cover.
"For 13 years now, we have provided warning labels on recordings
with explicit lyrics," Rosen says. "There's some music that isn't
right for kids, and parents ought to know about it."
Dave Marsh, former writer for Rolling Stone and author of
50 Ways to Fight Censorship, describes the labels as "an
extremely effective tool, as long as you understand that they are
a tool to censor."
"Rated records don't get into stores and have to get bowdlerized,"
Marsh said "Plus the industry is continually under attack by legislators
and other moralists for the simple reason that the labels are a
constructive guilty plea."
Marsh and others say the stickers have become a tool for Wal-Mart
and Kmart to use in pulling some recordings from their shelves.
The retailers refuse to sell the labeled recordings until the musicians
provide them with altered, non-offensive versions.
While customers can find unaltered recordings at stores such as
Tower Records and Sam Goody's, Nina Crowley of the Massachusetts
Music Industry Coalition notes that Wal-Mart alone accounts for
as much as 10% of compact disc sales in the United States. Thus,
the chain's refusal to stock stickered albums significantly limits
the audience available to a musician or band.
Crowley agrees that Wal-Mart and Kmart have the right to sell what
they choose. But she says those retailers in particular have gone
beyond that right to become "arbiters of free expression."
The stores refused to stock Marilyn Manson's latest album "Mechanical
Animals," and they put new albums from Rob Zombie and Snoop Dogg
on their shelves only after the musicians changed some of the content
of their work.
"It is the artist's and only the artist's right to make judgments
and alterations in the content of his work," Crowley said. "When
immense economic power is used to pressure musicians into these
changes, there is a serious abridgment of free expression."
But she says the trend will continue because retailers have found
such restrictions to be "a successful marketing technique and a
necessary response to pressure by religious and conservative powers
within their communities."
The trend, Crowley says, has already spilled over to concerts.
Lawmakers in both Michigan and South Carolina this past year introduced
legislation that would allow local communities to restrict attendance
at those concerts they deem "harmful to minors."
Free-speech advocates say such state measures not only violate
the assembly rights of concert-goers but also hinder the free expression
Mark Michaelsen, spokesman for Michigan Sen. Dale Shugars, R-Portage,
says a bill the senator sponsored recently isn't about ratings or
stifling free speech but one about parental involvement.
"We're not saying what these musical acts can or cannot do," Michaelsen
said. "We're just saying some shows are not appropriate for unaccompanied
minors. These kids, if this bill goes into effect, could still go
as long as they have parents with them."
Writer Marsh contends parents should be left alone to determine
what is appropriate for their children, whether it be a concert,
a movie or a television program.
"Doing that leaving us all to make our mistakes and reap
our own rewards and whirlwinds would be a truer expression
of 'standards and values' than these politicians' sensational, exploitationist
proposals," Marsh says.
But Wyatt says parents aren't listening to their children's music.
She recalls an unfriendly reception she received from parents as
she gave a speech to a parent-teacher association meeting in Virginia.
Wyatt says the parents didn't believe that obscene music was that
"Their children are listening to this music, but they are like
ostriches with heads in the sand," she says.
Grading the tube
Also coming under fire from parents and citizen groups recently
have been the TV Parental Guidelines, which were introduced by the
television industry in January 1997, revised a year later to include
more content labeling and finally approved by the Federal Communications
Commission last March.
So far, the guidelines have earned lukewarm reviews. Surveys conducted
this summer by networks and the Media Research Council show that
fewer than half of the parents polled actually stopped their children
from watching a show because of the rating.
Jim Hamilton, associate professor of public policy at Duke University,
says research for his just-released report "Channeling Violence:
The Economic Market for Violent Television Programming" offers similar
But in children ages 2 to 11, the number watching programs with
warnings dropped by more than 14% from 1987 to 1993, Hamilton says,
a total of about 200,000 viewers.
"There are … parents who, if you provide a set of information about
programming, will act on it," he said.
But, says Hamilton, television ratings are not designed to work
on their own. Until most American homes have v-chip-equipped sets,
most surveys are pointless, he says.
As for the First Amendment, Hamilton calls claims that the ratings
infringe on free-speech rights of broadcasters tenuous.
"The government mandated the technology, but the government did
not mandate the form or the existence of the ratings," he says.
"From a parent's or viewer's perspective, if you don't like the
v-chip, you don't have to invoke it."
Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against
Censorship, disagrees, noting that lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain,
R-Ariz., didn't even bother to cloak threats to impose their own
restrictions if the television industry didn't.
In the case of the movie industry, such threats by lawmakers disappeared
years ago. But syndicated film critic Michael Medved says the public
would clamor for ratings if the Motion Picture Association of America
hadn't imposed them 30 years ago.
"I think the public and the audience would demand [them]," Medved
said. "Most parents that I know may not pay strict attention to
the ratings, but they do use them as a guide."
Free-speech advocates, on the other hand, denounce the rating system
because it reduces the entire content of films to a letter and a
number or two. They say the code reveals little about a film's content
and nothing about its artistic quality.
While an R-rating reveals that a film may include hard language,
violence, nudity or drug use, it doesn't specify exactly which of
the potentially offensive elements appear in the movie or to what
Stephen Farber, author of The Movie Rating Game and a critic
with Movieline magazine, says the ratings force filmmakers
to keep their work within certain categories, sometimes preventing
them from exploring their full vision.
The Madonna film, "Body of Evidence," snagged an NC-17 when first
presented to the MPAA board in 1992. The movie's producers willingly
trimmed the offensive sex scenes because it was "crucial that [the
film] be acceptable to exhibitors throughout the country."
Director Louis Malle hesitated to change his film "Damage" after
the board gave it an NC-17 rating that same year. Malle eventually
relented and cut his film for U.S. theaters. In her review of the
film, New York Times critic Janet Maslin wrote that Malle's
protests were rational, "since without its full sexual component
this film is robbed of its best energy source."
More recently, fear of the censor left Adrian Lyne's take on Vladimir
Nabokov's Lolita begging for distributors for nearly two
years. No studio would market the film because of the frank story
of a 45-year-old professor who has an affair with his young stepdaughter.
But Showtime eventually aired the movie, and the Samuel Goldwyn
Co. picked it up for a nationwide theatrical release.
Recently, the rating debate has expanded into the video-game market
where several industry associations have developed their own rating
systems. Gail Markel of the Interactive Digital Software Association
says her group used the MPAA ratings as its starting point and,
in 1994, established the Entertainment Software Rating Board.
In addition to six letter ratings ranging from EC for Early Childhood
to AO for Adults Only, the board uses about 20 "content descriptors"
to show if a particular game has violence, strong language, sexual
themes or other potentially offensive content.
Markel says the board has rated more than 4,000 different game
titles for personal computers, CD-ROMs and home video games. Another
organization, the American Amusement Machine Association, recently
drafted ratings for coin-operated arcade machines.
"Ratings aren't about censorship," Markel said. They're "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
Future of ratings
Given the nation's current focus on the Starr report and its possible
ramifications, the debate on rating and monitoring the entertainment
industry may be suspended for a while.
Sen. Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican who sponsored two Senate
hearings on music lyrics this past session, says he doesn't have
any plans for another hearing any time soon.
However, several state lawmakers who unsuccessfully sponsored bills
regulating the sale of labeled records to minors say they do plan
to resurrect those measures next year. Georgia Rep. Vernon Jones,
D-Decatur, thinks his bill will pass the Georgia Assembly next year
"if those recording industry lawyers with their $1,000 suits and
their $300 shoes" don't show up.
But the Family Entertainment Guide's Gilreath says parents
don't need to wait for laws to force the entertainment industry
to better inform them.
"The First Amendment is there for parents, too, and they have an
obligation to use it," he says. "If you remain silent, aren't you
as guilty as condoning [the offensive content] as if you were partaking
Some say the mere threat of government oversight has bolstered
creation of additional rating systems and further restricted First
While the ratings themselves may help stave off direct government
efforts to censor, they've allowed retailers, theater owners and
others to restrict the showing of certain movies or television programs
or the sale of some recordings.
Free-speech advocates say parents and others should tackle the
issue of what is appropriate in entertainment by checking it out
for themselves instead of resorting to ratings.
"Ratings rob my children and yours of the right to develop and
use their own good judgment," says Marsh. "If we love our children,
we should protect them from, among other things, replacing sound
thinking with the mindless bauble ratings represent."