Ratings versus Censorship

During a radio talk show, I was pitted against Mr. Jeremiah Gutman, the co-chair of the National Coalition Against Censorship. Involved for decades with First Amendment cases and other issues of individual rights, this New York lawyer has had a hand in many pivotal points of legal decisions regarding freedom of speech in the United States.

On many issues of racial and religious tolerance, my opinions go hand in hand with Mr. Gutman. But on the topic we were discussing, I was amazed at how easily the argument against censorship can be spun into an excuse to rid parents of what few available methods they have to control the media coming into their homes.

For instance, Mr. Gutman used the term “manipulative censorship” when referring to our staff’s efforts at Parent Previews to provide parents with additional information about the content of movies.

I wasn’t surprised by his remarks. In 1997, speaking to the Religious Public Relations Council in New York City, the attorney is quoted by United Methodist News Service as saying television ratings were “in violation of the Constitution.”

Using violent content as an example, Mr. Gutman claimed it was too difficult to discern what kind of acts constitute violence, and felt this difficulty was “insurmountable.”

In my conversation with him, he expressed similar feelings about the MPAA ratings applied to movies, stating Hollywood is being bullied by threats from government into making movies that fit certain audience demographics.

I have certainly heard arguments similar to his before, but what amazed me is how ill founded this debate of ratings versus censorship is.

Prior to the introduction of the first incarnation of movie ratings in November 1968, Hollywood worked under the Hays Production Code. This stringent set of guidelines was hotly contested by movie creators who were obliged to include (among many other items) “compensating moral values” to offset questionable themes (quoting from Morality and Entertainment: The Origins of the Motion Picture Production Code by Stephen Vaughn). Needless to say, portrayals of sexual and violent acts, along with the use of profanity, was also strictly controlled.

As the swinging sixties drew to a close, the Hays Code was a badly beaten relic of a bygone era. In an attempt to please conservatives and liberals, the industry introduced movie ratings with the perspective that adults shouldn’t be told what is and is not permissible in movies. Instead the rating for each film would let parents decide for themselves what their families should see, and some films would be considered off limits for children entirely.

The result? In less than a decade we moved from Lilies of the Field to Last Tango in Paris.

To assert that movie ratings have censored our film industry is nonsense. Others will argue that films are frequently cut to meet ratings guidelines. That is true… but studios choose to edit movies for the simple fact they want the lucrative teen audience to have access to the vast majority of titles produced. The film wouldn’t be banned without these alterations; it simply wouldn’t have a rating allowing adolescents and children into a theater unless accompanied by an adult. (Although, according to FTC surveys, this is often an easily circumvented barrier).

If many of the movies I screen had as much creativity put into plot and character development as they do in meeting the specifications of a particular rating, there would be no shortage of people to fill theater seats.

Over the past decade we’ve witnessed a similar outcome with television ratings. Mr. Gutman feels V-chips are stifling freedom of speech. But how can anyone argue that television isn’t “enjoying” a period of unrestrained content controls like never before? The V-chip and television ratings have moved the censorship controls from the network executives’ offices to our living rooms, and given program creators justification to pump virtually anything into our public airwaves.

Censorship is about me telling you what you cannot see. Ratings and parental guides are akin to food content labels. They are merely advisories that allow busy families to carefully consider their entertainment choices and make informed consumer decisions.

Parents have more responsibility than ever before, so it’s important for each of us to consider ways we can exercise our freedoms without encroaching on others’ liberties. Movie and TV ratings, with all of their acknowledged faults, have allowed for an unprecedented freedom of expression while enabling those who wish to use them to have a degree of control.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…