Rated “A” for Aggressive: Hillary Clinton, the Entertainment Industry, and First Amendment Rights

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This article originally appeared in Boxoffice magazine. 

The movie theater industry takes its ratings compliance and enforcement seriously – and the Democratic nominee for president does too.

From the time she moved into the White House as First Lady through her tenure as Senator from New York and her first presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton consistently made childhood and family issues a focal point – including the impact of entertainment content on children.  Of late, she has positioned herself as an arbiter on family issues, using the hashtag #GrandmothersKnowBest to hearken to her own experience as a mother and grandmother.  Now that her second presidential campaign is in full swing, her past focus on children and media could resurface.  This article takes a deep dive into Clinton’s history on the issue.

The mid-nineties were a hotbed of executive activism and industry change toward entertainment ratings systems.  Congress enacted – with the support of President Bill Clinton – legislation mandating television chips that would screen programs for violent content.  Summoning television executives to the White House in early 1996, the Clinton administration put the heat on television studios to produce a voluntary, industry-wide ratings system that would help parents screen out inappropriate material.  The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), established only a couple years earlier, was in the nascent stage of applying and enforcing its tiered ratings.

Encouraging these efforts was a figure who would continue to push an aggressive agenda on media ratings and content throughout her own time in office:  First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Devoted to children’s issues during her time in the East Wing, Clinton made clear her opposition to childhood exposure to sexual imagery and violence in entertainment.  In the early years of her husband’s first term, Clinton decried the oversaturation of violence in media.  “We are fed, through the media, a daily diet of sex and violence and social dysfunction and unrealizable fantasies,” she said at a 1995 appearance at Brooklyn College.  Clinton participated in the president’s 1996 meeting with television executives – both she and Tipper Gore sat in on the proceedings – and continued to raise objections to media violence and sexuality into her husband’s second term.  In a 1998 speech on school safety, Clinton linked viewed violence to real-life behavior.  “The violence children see every day on their TV and video screens – all lead to more violent and aggressive behavior, particularly among our teenagers,” she warned.

Clinton’s speech came just months before the most seismic, tragic event in teen violence in modern American history.  The entertainment industry would soon be rocked by the repercussions of the Columbine massacre.  Video games, movies, television programs, and music were soon to be subjected to intense national scrutiny over their effect on youth mental health and morality.

The mass murders of their fellow students by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris ignited national debates over gun access, bullying, and equally famously, the effect of violence depicted in movies and video games.  Psychiatrists, pundits, and armchair psychologists alike posited that Klebold and Harris had been negatively influenced by the contents of the movie “Natural Born Killers” and the video game “Doom.”  Marilyn Manson, eviscerated in the press for possible linkage between his music and the actions of the two teens, was compelled to issue a statement calling the entertainment industry “unfairly scapegoated.”

Scrambling to address this issue, President Clinton immediately convened an entertainment industry summit and ordered senior aides to brief him on the various ratings systems employed by the different entertainment sectors.  In June of 1999, the president invited NATO’s president and board chairwoman to the Oval Office to discuss a public push on stronger enforcement of “R” rated movies.

But the president wasn’t alone in linking the Columbine tragedy with entertainment media.  The first lady, on the cusp of declaring her Senate candidacy, continued to publicly correlate youth violence with media violence.  At a roundtable event with parents in New York, she urged attendees not to purchase violent video games, “no matter how much your child begs.”  She also pressed the parents to think about boycotting sponsors of violent TV shows.  “There is just no doubt that our children are exposed to an overwhelming amount of violence and mayhem – not only violent acts, but violent language – from the moment they are put in front of a television set,” she warned.

In late 1999, she called for a uniform ratings standard – a stance she endorsed in the speech officially declaring her Senate campaign.  An “alphabet soup” of ratings was too confusing for parents, she said, and should be replaced by one system used across all entertainment sectors.  Industry leaders were quick to push back against Clinton’s proposal, stating that a new system would cause even more confusion in the marketplace.  The idea had support in Congress, but legislation never gained traction.

Entertainment ratings systems and how parents could differentiate between age-appropriate content remained a prime issue for Clinton once she took office.  While in the Senate, Clinton co-sponsored no less than five bills addressing the impact of media on children and the marketing of violent or sexual content to minors, crossing the aisle to join with conservative Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Rick Santorum (R-PA) on these efforts.

But her most prominent attempt to upend ratings systems came in 2005, when she introduced the Family Entertainment Protect Act (FEPA), a bill levying civil penalties on business that sold or rented video games rated Mature, Adults-Only, or Ratings Pending to anyone under the age of 17.  The legislation was Clinton’s horrified reaction to the revelation that the video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” contained a hidden mini-game with graphic sexual content.  The game was originally rated “M” for Mature, which Clinton and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) considered an egregious mischaracterization of the game’s content.  (The FTC eventually entered into a consent agreement with the game’s makers, who agreed to re-rate the game and include more information about ratings on promotional packaging.)  Clinton’s strong feelings on childhood exposure to violent and sexual media were evident in her floor speech introducing the bill:

“I rise today to introduce a bill to help parents protect their children against violent and sexual media.  I stand with the parents and children of the Nation, all of whom are being victimized by a culture of violence.  As parents, we monitor the kind of people who interact with our children. If somebody is exposing our children to material we find inappropriate, we remove our children from that person.  Yet our children spend more time consuming media than doing anything else but sleeping and attending school.  Media culture is like having a stranger in your house, and it exerts a major influence over your children.”

Her strong public stance on the issue notwithstanding, Clinton’s bill died without seeing Senate floor action.  However, it is unlikely that the bill would have withstood judicial scrutiny if it had passed Congress:  Similar laws in California, Louisiana, Michigan, and Oklahoma were found unconstitutional.  The case against the California bill made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld previous rulings that the bill violated the Constitution.

In 2005, the California state legislature passed a bill banning the sale of violent video games to anyone under age 18.  Video game software makers and merchants obtained an injunction to block the law’s enforcement, and the bill was consistently struck down by federal courts on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment.  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appealed these decisions, ultimately convincing the Supreme Court to consider the case.  NATO submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of the game-makers’ right to produce such content.

In 2011, the Court ruled 7-2 that the bill violated both the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  The decision affirmed the right of game-makers and merchants to create and market violent video games, which the Court held to be no different than fairy tales with gory content.

Just as crucial to the collective entertainment industry was the fact that the justices took into account the accomplishments of the ESRB’s voluntary ratings system.  The Federal Trade Commission’s 2009 report on the success of the ESRB ratings system in restricting the sale of mature products to minors was influential to the court.  In delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the ratings system “does much to ensure that minors cannot purchase seriously violent games on their own, and that parents who care about the matter can readily evaluate the games their children bring home.  Filling the remaining modest gap in concerned-parents’ control can hardly be a compelling state interest.”  The message to the entertainment industry was clear:  High rates of compliance with voluntary ratings systems help keep the government out of your business.

The entertainment ratings issue remained relevant in Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.  In a 2007 interview with Common Sense Media, Clinton said she still supported legislation like FEPA and pledged to “work to protect children from inappropriate video game content” if she became president.  (Clinton’s daughter Chelsea currently serves on the Board of Advisors for Common Sense Media.  The organization opposed the court’s decision on the California legislation.)

Fast forward eight years to the present day and Clinton’s second presidential campaign.  While her official campaign announcement focused on the economy, Clinton has given no indication that her positions on media content and entertainment ratings have changed.  Indeed, her long history of work on childhood issues and robust past backing of executive and legislative proposals on these matters – the strong support Clinton enjoys from Hollywood moguls notwithstanding – may foreshadow her continued activism.