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