Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU #380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Ci

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Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU #380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Civil Liberties Union TALKING LIBERTIES Traditionally, political pressure to censor television or movies in the United States has come from the right. Today, however, the pressure to restrict television and movie content comes mainly from liberal politicians: from Attorney General Janet Reno, who has used the power of her office to threaten producers; from Senator Paul Simon, a near icon of liberalism who trumpets his support for the ACLU and yet has threatened legislation to restrict television "violence" -- only vaguely defined -- during certain hours. Such legislation would almost certainly be unconstitutional if passed, but the threat of it has moved networks to "voluntarily" adopt content-based restrictions. As a result, Mr. Simon has delayed pressing his legislation for a year, preferring to hold his sword at network executives' necks pending his evaluation of their initiatives. And Ms. Reno has grudgingly acknowledged the networks' capitulation, while indicating her preference for even more restrictions. To justify these moves, politicians with a history of support for the First Amendment have advanced the proposition that curbing moving image violence would reduce violence in real life. But where is the credible evidence that on-screen violence can turn a stable, law abiding person into a violent criminal? The real violence that concerns all of us cannot credibly be traced to Rambo movies, video games or cartoons, much less to "Murder, She Wrote" -- a television series that Ms. Reno has characterized as "about nothing but violence" even as she concedes the total absence of graphic portrayals of violence on that mannerly show. The "Murder, She Wrote" example illustrates the general problem of defining violence. Any definition emanating from the government, however, is almost guaranteed to be so vague and/or overbroad as to vest enormous discretion in prosecutors, leading to widespread trampling on First Amendment rights. What might be the fate of "Romeo and Juliet" or of its 1970s' musical incarnation, "West Side Story"? The classic screen thriller, "Psycho"? John Wayne movies or "Westerns" or war movies or James Bond films? What about cartoons or nursery rhymes, which have been violent throughout the ages? And what about films like "Schindler's List" -- which has already felt the heat in Wisconsin, where a public high school prohibited a history teacher from taking his class to see "Schindler's List" because the film is rated "R" for both violence and nudity. Not to say there isn't too much mindless, gratuitous violence on movie and TV screens -- there always has been. Just because producers have the right to show garbage doesn't mean they should. In supporting free expression, we are not required to approve of content that we disagree with or deplore. But that isn't the issue. The issue is whether we want the government to decide what should and should not be shown. Legitimation of government censorship targeted on moving image violence would produce a bitter harvest of wide-ranging restrictions on freedom of expression that would not be offset by any measurable reduction in street violence. Once again, in response to their constituents' legitimate, politicians have cynically created a diversion in an effort to appear "tough on crime," while the grave problems besetting our society continue to fester. The violence in our streets is unquestionably fueled, not by depictions of violence on television, but by the convergence of drug prohibition and the illegal drug market's lure of riches with the dearth of legitimate economic opportunities for ghetto youth. Yet politicians refuse to talk sense about decriminalization. The notion that homicide has become the leading cause of death among young African American males due to "Mortal Kombat" or TV shoot-'em-ups is ludicrous. Do drug dealers blow away each other, their customers and innocent bystanders because they watched "The Untouchables"? Was Al Capone a killer because he watched Bugs Bunny as a child? I don't think so. By refusing to talk seriously about what drug prohibition has wrought, by refusing to talk seriously about the problems they were elected to solve, politicians are engaging in self-censorship. At the same time, they want to censor us by pulling the plug on shows that they claim turn normal people into psychotics. It's a hoax, folks. -------------------- Ira Glasser is Executive Director of the ACLU. ============================================================= ACLU Free Reading Room | A publications and information resource of the gopher:// | American Civil Liberties Union National Office | | "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"


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