Squeeze Play

Can the Federal Trade Commission threaten Hollywood with deceptive advertising charges? Four major movie studios last week did not wait to find out. They abdicated their legal right to market violent films to children under 17. Instead of applauding, parents who treasure their freedom to make appropriate choices for their children should be enraged by the federal government’s latest end-run around the First Amendment in the guise of fostering industry self-regulation.

John McCain, R-Ariz., and others on the Senate Commerce Committee would have us believe that violent media content is the same as cigarettes or beer. Since when did an R-rating become the equivalent of a legal ban? Where is the Surgeon General’s report clearly linking violent media to violent acts?

Film studios can and should market their films to audiences of all ages. The movie rating system is simply an informational guide for parents. They should be the only judges determining what their youngsters see.

Instead, the government bullied Hollywood into agreeing to censor itself. “Why don’t you simply say you won’t market this kind of material, period?” McCain asked. Dreamworks and MGM agreed. Warner Bros. and Fox pledged not to advertise R-rated movies in media where more than 35 percent of the audience is under 17. Legal commercial speech died with barely a whimper.

It was the videogame Doom—not a movie—that was implicated in the Columbine tragedy. Which, in turn, prompted President Clinton to order an FTC report on entertainment -industry marketing practices. Yet the videogame and music industries were noticeably absent from last week’s hearing, as was the group representing theater owners. Kids under 17 don’t walk into movie theatres unless someone lets them.

No doubt McCain had the presidential election firmly in mind when he decided to single out Hollywood, despite his protestations. A big chunk of the soft money flowing into Democratic coffers comes from the entertainment sector. Republicans love pointing out the connection—but have they returned the cash Hollywood contributes to them?

The Republicans also threatened Hollywood’s top executives with legislation that would allow the government to establish its own rating guidelines, making it illegal for anyone under 17 to be admitted to an R-rated movie or buy an adult-rated videogame. “If you don’t try to make this work, you are going to see some kind of legislation because parents are throwing up their hands over this,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

Mercifully, some movie studios stood their ground. “Some people under 17 will inevitably see ads for R-rated movies in specific media with broad demographic reach,” said Stacey Snider, chairman of Universal Pictures. “In fact, their parents or adult guardians might choose to attend those movies with them.”

Pressuring companies to stop marketing a legal product sounds like prior restraint of speech to me. Washington is littered with lawyers. Can’t one of them make the case?