Free Speech And Music Paging Mr. Zappa Where’s Frank Zappa when you need him? The last time U.S. senators took to wagging their fingers at media executives and threatening legal restrictions if pop culture didn’t get just a bit less .. well .. popular, Zappa shook his finger right back. He unleashed a torrent of righteous outrage at the assembled politicos and their busybody wives — and he even looked cool doing it.
One of the political wives to feel Zappa’s wrath was Tipper Gore, whose hubby, Al, is currently laying into media executives as the Democratic candidate for president. Along with running-mate Sen. Joe Lieberman, Gore threatened restrictive legislation within six months if the entertainment industry didn’t stop marketing violent films, recordings and videogames to America’s youth. Lord knows, sixteen-year-old boys need powerful inducement to lure them away from chick flicks at the multiplex. Lieberman himself has been described by Wired as being as strident as the most right-wing Republican when it comes to calling for restrictions on sex and violence in music, TV, and videogames. As Wired implied, this isn’t a purely Democratic show by any means.
Republican Sen. Sam Brownback has done his best to make bashing directors, musicians and software programmers a cross-aisle affair. Earlier this year, Brownback called a press conference to announce a joint statement by an alphabet soup of medical organizations claiming that [w]ell over 1,000 studies point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children. Touting a study of its own, the mushy middle of the finger-wagging tag-team is occupied by the bureaucrats of the Federal Trade Commission. Just in time for the climax of the 2000 campaign season, they released Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Review of Self-Regulation and Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording & Electronic Game Industries.
The hefty tome is a potboiler of a study suggesting that (gasp!) youth culture is in fact sold to youth. That’s quite a line-up of would-be saviors of America’s young innocents (if you can find any). And Frank Zappa is no longer among us to out-outrage the culture warriors. With no champion, are the foes of censorship doomed? Well, they may not be as stylish as Zappa, but free speech still has its friends. Among them is Reason magazine’s Jacob Sullum, who turned a curious eye to Sen. Brownback’s assertion that medical science has found proof that kids who play Quake are bound to run amuck in the school lunchroom.
According to Sullum, a claim that over 1,000 studies have found a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior seems a bit peculiar, since Jonathan Freedman, a University of Toronto psychologist who recently completed a review of the scientific literature, counts about 200 published studies that have tried to measure the impact of TV or film violence on aggression. Aside from the senator’s odd act of multiplication, there’s yet another problem with his claim. Most of the studies that actually occurred failed to show any strong tendency on the part of shoot-’em-ups to turn kids into Ted Bundy. That should be no surprise. Free-market.net’s own Wendy McElroy points out that the crusade against violent games and movies can be traced back at least three decades to 1972, to the United States Surgeon General’s proclamation that children become violent due to images on television.
That earlier cultural jihad was drawn up short when the Federal Commission on Pornography and Obscenity failed to find any real connection between risque entertainment and violent kids. Taking the wayback machine further, to the ’50s, comic books were tagged as the literary (well, sort of) gates of Hell for young Americans. Gruesome and suggestive themes abounded and were destined, politicians claimed, to warp the minds of tots everywhere. Despite the apparent failings of the Baby Boomer generation, no firm link has ever been found to EC Comics or Mad magazine. But even if there were evidence that letting teens watch TV could make them ill-tempered, that doesn’t really suggest that the ultimate solution lies in a Senate hearing room. After all, look as you might, you won’t find an unless-it-makes-the-kids-jittery exception to the First Amendment.
Referring to the proposed Media Violence Labeling Act of 2000 (co-sponsored by Sen. Lieberman), which would not only impose labeling requirements, but also age restrictions on the media, Ronald D. Rotunda, a professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law, suggested that the measure is on a collision course with the Supreme Court. Writing for the Cato Institute, Rotunda adds, the bill’s labeling scheme is a classic prior restraint, invalid under the First Amendment. Recognizing the inconvenient hurdles placed in their way by the Constitution, some legislators prefer to target the advertising of videogames and movies rather than the content.
They may not be able to head-off the next Jackie Chan flick, but they’ll try and keep you from knowing that it’s been released. This free-speech end-run comes courtesy of the odd status possessed by commercial speech, which is often seen as less worthy of legal protection than the purer variety. But even here, censorious legislators are in gray territory. That advertising is less protected doesn’t mean that it’s unprotected. And as Freedom Forum writes in its guide to the legal ins and outs of commercial speech, [i]t is interesting to note that advertising which promotes the sale or patronage of other speech — such as books and movies — is regularly treated as noncommercial and thus fully protected. That censorious assaults on action movies and edgy music are likely to founder on rocky legal shores doesn’t mean that you have to let your kids wallow in entertainment of which you disapprove.
They are your kids after all, and you get to guide their development right up until .. well .. they become teenagers, to be realistic; all bets are off after that. Since Frank Zappa is no longer around to make the suggestion, I’ll do it for him: If you don’t care for what popular culture has to offer, just turn the TV off. Music.