Justices, FTC Study Commercial Speech

There were strong signs last week of just how far the federal government might go in curbing commercial speech to protect children.

The Federal Trade Commission released a second report on media violence, saying the entertainment industry must do more to control the content of its marketing to children. In response, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., introduced a bill that would allow the FTC to charge entertainment companies with deceptive ad practices and issue fines if they advertise adult-rated content in media targeted at minors.

Separately, the Supreme Court has the chance to write new rules for protecting commercial speech after hearing arguments on whether Massachusetts can restrict tobacco ads from venues where kids might see them.

“The issue of the hour is, what are the rules for the protection of kids in the advertising area?” said Dan Jaffe, evp of the Association of National Advertisers. “When can the government step in and stop messages because children can see them?”

The FTC report criticized the music industry in particular for doing nothing to improve its marketing practices since the commission issued its first report in September. The music industry had promised to include warn ings of explicit lyrics in its ads, but the FTC found that it did so less than a third of the time, said Mary Engle, assistant director of the FTC’s Adver tising Practices Division, at an American Advertising Fed eration conference last week.

Sen. Lieberman said his bill “would provide a narrowly tailored shield” by giving the FTC authority to fine companies up to $11,000 per offense if they market violent material meant for adults to kids. “The bottom line here is that the First Amendment is not a license to deceive,” he said.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., last week said the entertainment industry should have a uniform rating system for movies, videogames and software, a standard she requested after the shootings at Col umbine High School.

Supreme Court justices last week heard a tobacco-industry challenge to a Massachusetts law prohibiting cigarette ads in stadiums or within 1,000 feet of a pub lic playground, park or school [Ad week, April 23]. Dur ing the argument, the justices seemed to focus more on whether the restrictions are pre-empted under federal law. If the court determines they are, it would not rule on First Amendment issues raised in the case.