Letter to the Editor: Jack Valenti

It’s puzzling why Senators Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton — both superbly educated as high-competency lawyers and dedicated to public service — have proposed legislation that treats so casually, so indifferently, the one clause in the Constitution that guarantees all others in the greatest of documents ever struck off by the hand and brain of Man.

That clause is called the First Amendment. The exquisite simplicity of its 45 words begins with this unambiguous statement: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….”

It doesn’t say “perhaps” or “maybe” or “it depends on the circumstances.” It says “no law,” which is about as plain as the mother tongue can make it.

This means the government cannot intrude in any creative material protected by the First Amendment. To every man and woman in the creative arts, the freedom from that fear is what builds the rostrum from which springs America’s creative worth.

Equally puzzling is that the bill offered by Lieberman and Clinton would infect fatally the voluntary movie rating system. This bill would empower a government regulatory agency to determine if a movie producer has marketed an “adult rated” film in any venue where there are a “substantial” (undefined) number of children watching or reading. Mind you, these “adult rated” movies were voluntarily rated by movie producers. If the Federal Trade Commission concludes, by whatever standard it chooses to apply, that the producer did indeed violate the rules of the FTC, the producer may be fined $11,000 per day per violation for a so-called “deceptive trade practice.”

Further, it states that the FTC will offer a “safe harbor,” that is, immunize the producer against punishment, if the producer will follow, explicitly to the letter, a rating system and marketing guidelines designed by the FTC. To put it bluntly, the government for the first time will become the monitor, the arbiter and the policeman of the marketing of creative material, with the power to punish producers.

Consider the subtle irony here. Those producers who voluntarily offer ratings with advance information about films so that parents can better guide their children’s movie viewing will be inviting indictment and punishment by the government. Those producers who do not participate in any voluntary rating are granted immunity from punishment. Why would any producer/distributor continue to rate movies if the company would be in the crosshairs of the FTC monitors, facing huge fines for inadvertent mistakes (as the FTC would define them)?

Is that supposed to make parents feel better? Do parents truly want the government to make movie-rating decisions for them? Do parents think any government is wise enough to tell them how to raise their children because the government believes parents don’t have sense enough to make their own decisions about their children’s conduct?

Why, then, is this legislation being proposed? Why does the bill ignore the latest FTC Report, issued in April, which commended the movie industry in 17 separate citations for making visible improvement in marketing practices? Why does the bill turn a blind eye toward the FTC Report’s clear and readily absorbed statement?

Because of First Amendment issues, the FTC continues to believe vigilant self-regulation is the best approach to ensuring that parents are provided with adequate information.

The FTC understands, even if some members of Congress do not, that while the government can require “labeling” of cereal boxes and cigarettes, both unprotected by the First Amendment, it cannot require “labeling” of movies or any other creative works.

Why do the bill’s authors pay no attention to a national poll by the Opinion Research Corp. that reveals some 81% of parents with children under 13 find the current rating system “very useful” to “fairly useful” in movie guidance for their youngsters? Why does the bill turn away from the FTC’s own independent survey that reported 80% of parents were “satisfied” with the current rating system?

Finally, why cannot this bill get it straight, that if you threaten heavy fines on those distributors who voluntarily rate their movies for the benefit of parents, and absolve from any punishment those producers who do not rate their movies, why on earth would sane distributors continue to voluntarily rate their films? Why?

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