Letter to the Editor: Senator Joe Lieberman

I appreciate my friend Jack Valenti’s passion for the First Amendment and the MPAA ratings system. But it appears from Jack’s recent criticisms of my work (“Senator’s bill imperils First Amendment,” May 18) that his love is blinding him to reality.

Indeed, contrary to Jack’s apocalyptic descriptions, my legislation prohibiting the deceptive marketing of adult-rated movies to children does not in any way intrude on the free speech rights of producers. It does not give the Federal Trade Commission any authority to regulate content in any way. Nor does it give the FTC the authority to determine what movies are appropriate for kids, or to “make movie-rating decisions” for parents, as Jack wrongly asserts.

This bill — which is co-sponsored by Senators Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — only applies to the kind of indefensible practices the FTC uncovered in its report last fall. It says that if a studio voluntarily labels a movie as inappropriate for kids under 17, and then directly markets it to that same audience, that is a deceptive act. Under our bill, the offending company would, like any other business that engages in deceptive advertising, be held accountable by the FTC, through the same rules and same civil penalties.

The fact is that federal courts have consistently upheld the authority of the FTC to regulate deceptive advertising. Obviously, there are free speech concerns any time the government restricts speech, commercial or otherwise. But the First Amendment is not a license to deceive, regardless of whether you are selling moisturizer or movies.

That said, I agree with Jack that self-regulation is the optimal solution to this problem and the best way to avoid a protracted court fight. The FTC said as much when it recommended that the movie industry adopt a tough voluntary policy expressly prohibiting the targeting of R-rated movies to children and a system for enforcing the standard.

Unfortunately, while a few studios such as Disney, Warner Bros. and Fox have responded commendably with policies of their own, the MPAA has to date failed to develop an industrywide policy, let alone an enforcement mechanism.

That is why, in response to Jack’s question, my colleagues and I decided to introduce our bill of last resort. We did, in fact, pay close attention to the FTC’s most recent report. It found that despite some progress, a few studios are continuing to target R-rated movies to children. And it reiterated the need for the kind of industrywide policy that Jack has refused to adopt to stop this practice once and for all.

The real puzzling question here is why the MPAA will not say unequivocally that it is wrong to directly target heavily violent, R-rated movies to children. My hope is that Jack will stop using the First Amendment as a smokescreen and start getting serious about self-regulation. But if he is not going to do the right thing and put an end to a practice that much if not most of the creative community has condemned, then we will.

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