A LOOK AT CURRENT RATING SYSTEMS OFFERS AN INDICATION OF WHAT LIES AHEAD
An article in the October 18, 1999, New York Times described a new concept in computer games--"Christian Action" games. The article noted that the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) had given one game, called War in Heaven, a rating of "T," meaning it is suitable for people age 13 and older. The reasons for the rating were unexplained, although the ESRB noted that the game contained graphic violence.
Given that movies and recordings have long been rated--movies since 1968, recordings since 1985--the rating of games like War in Heaven invites two important questions.
* Which category of materials will be next to be rated?
* How, if at all, might such ratings be used in or by publicly funded libraries?
An overview of the schemes currently used to rate the content of various media and a summary of the case law on the attempted uses of private motion picture rating codes by governments may provide some guidance and an indication of what kinds of content rating await as yet unrated media.
The ratings games
Movies. The so-called Hays Code, which dated from 1930, was replaced in 1968 by the Motion Picture Academy of America (MPAA) ratings panel and system. The MPAA system has three characteristics that reappear in other media rating systems: it is voluntary, it is entirely private, and it is intended as a parental guidance system (in fact, the only requirement for serving on an MPAA review panel is being a parent).
The MPAA rating system has five categories:
* G = General audiences--all ages.
* PG = Parental guidance suggested--some material may not be suitable for children.
* PG-13 = Parents strongly cautioned--some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
* R = Restricted-under age 17 requires accompanying adult.
* NC-17 = No one under 18 admitted ("NC-17" replaced "X" in 1990).
Sound recordings. In 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America entered into an agreement with parent groups to label new recordings that contain strong language or expressions of violence, sex, or drug abuse. A uniform parental advisory logo indicating the presence of one or more of these was developed in 1990 for use on packaging.
Computer and video games. The ESRB has administered a voluntary parental advisory rating system for video and computer games since 1994. There are five age-based categories:
* EC = Early childhood--ages 3 and up.
* E = Everyone-ages and up.
* T = Teen--ages 13 and up.
* M = Mature--ages 17 and up.
* AO = Adults only--ages 18 and up.
The packaging also displays content descriptors such as "realistic violence," "animated blood and gore," "strong language," "use of tobacco and alcohol," and "gaming."
Television. The Federal Communications Commission adopted rules in 1998 mandating that all TV sets with 13-inch or larger screens manufactured after January 1, 2000, have "V-chips" that read voluntary encodings that indicate sexual or violent content. The encodings are displayed for the first 15 seconds of a rated program. The encodings are:
* TV-Y = All children.
* TV-Y7 = Older children--ages 7 and up.
* TV-G = General audience--suitable for all ages.
* TV-PG = Parental guidance suggested--contains material parents may find unsuitable for younger children.
* TV-14 = Parents strongly cautioned--contains material many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14.
* TV-MA = Mature audience only--specifically designed to be viewed by adults; may be unsuitable for children under 17.
Cyberspace. Content rating schemes for the Internet, and devices designed to use them, are of two general types: filters and codes provided by producers. Although widely acknowledged to be imperfect, filtering software is the better-known device for the Internet. A dozen or more filtering products are available; all use software installed on a personal computer or a server to block sites based on language, sexual content, and other criteria.
Encoding calls for Web-site producers to rate their content on a scale of 0 to 4 in four categories: sex, nudity, violence, and language. The ratings would be encoded in the sites and read by a personal computer browser that could be set at acceptable levels. This system, RSACi (named after the Recreational Software Advisory Council on the Internet), has been built into Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 and Netscape Navigator. The Internet Content Rating Association has introduced a plan to implement RSACi internationally in hopes of avoiding a checkerboard of individual governmentally imposed and operated schemes.
PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) is an alternative scheme for Internet content rating. Both the RSACi and the PICS systems rely on producers to self-evaluate content and then embed these evaluations in Web pages.
Ratings are guidelines, not law
The MPAA content rating system has been the subject of extensive litigation. Challenges to the incorporation of MPAA ratings into local and county ordinances and state laws have usually been based on the First Amendment. The case law that has grown out of this litigation probably gives us a good idea of the challenges that await ratings systems for other media.
A small flood of cases made it onto court dockets in 1970, two years after the rating system was established. In North Carolina, a federal district court concluded that a local sheriffs threat to seize films and prosecute theater owners who showed R- or X-rated films was an unreasonable prior restraint. A state court in Georgia enjoined enforcement of an ordinance that established a graduated tax on the exhibition of films based on the MPAA ratings, with the lowest tax on PGs and the highest on Xs. In New Hampshire, a state court ruled invalid a town ordinance imposing a fee of $500 for each showing of an X-rated film. The federal district court in eastern Pennsylvania determined that a criminal law that would have penalized exhibitors from showing films or previews that were not "suitable" for family or children's viewing as determined by the MPAA ratings was vague and lacked standards. In Wisconsin, a federal district court forbade enforcement of a local ordinance in Kenosha that would have prohibited mino rs from viewing R-rated films.
The upshot of these decisions was that exhibitors could not be threatened or taxed on the basis of the MPAA ratings and that minors could not be prohibited by law from viewing R-rated films.
In 1972 and 1973, South Carolina and Oklahoma passed laws that exempted any film with an MPAA rating from the state's obscenity laws; in both states, federal district courts declared these "exemption" statutes unconstitutional. In 1983, Grand Valley State College in Michigan refused to issue funds to a student organization sponsoring the showing of an X-rated film; the federal district court ruled that this use of the MPAA rating was unconstitutional. In 1984, South Carolina tried to impose a tax on admissions to X-rated films; the court declared the law an unconstitutional delegation of power to a private trade association.
In sum, the main findings of state and federal courts in nullifying incorporation of the MPAA ratings into ordinances and laws are:
* That prior restraint, absent a judicial finding of obscene content, is prohibited.
* That the MPAA rating criteria are vague.
* That incorporation of the MPAA ratings in laws is an impermissible delegation of legislative and judicial authority to a private "actor."
Guidance for libraries
Although these cases did not deal with many library-specific questions, they do offer some guidance for publicly funded libraries. First, the courts have been consistent in striking down the prohibition of the showing of a film based on its MPAA rating. Second, the courts have not permitted special taxes based on a film's rating or the lack thereof. Finally, the courts have not allowed laws restricting admission by age based on a film's rating. In sum, the courts have not been willing to allow a film to be proscribed or the viewing of it to be taxed or limited by age absent a judicial finding that the film contained obscene content that would not enjoy First Amendment protection. There are obvious parallels with the way in which future courts might rule on the use of privately rated materials in publicly supported libraries.
What uses might a library make of the information that ratings symbols convey? More than a decade ago, a library asked ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee whether marking out the MPAA rating symbol on the container for videos was permissible. The committee concluded that such marking would itself violate the spirit and intent of the ALA policy against labeling based on content. More recently a question has been raised regarding adding rating information to a bibliographic record, presumably in the "local notes" field. If this were done for all rated media, not selectively, would such a practice violate the labeling policy?
Back to the future
The years immediately ahead will see vigorous attempts to extend the labeling of content to all media--including books, concerts, magazines, even (again) comic books. We can look for more legislative initiatives at all levels of government, and litigation seeking to overturn the body of case law discussed above will surely continue.
Librarianship has a long-standing practice of labeling as to age suitability in reviews of books and other material for children and young adults. Such labeling represents the subjective judgment of the reviewer, but it does not it have as its primary basis morality concerns.
Finally, as the Internet becomes more pervasive worldwide, more governments may turn to PICS to impose content-based controls. In the United States, of course, the First Amendment presents a formidable barrier to government use of filtering or PICS or RSACi; but even here many localities and states have sought to mandate the use of filtering software to block access to "unsuitable" materials by minors in public libraries. A federal law, the Communications Decency Act, aimed at libraries and other institutions was ruled unconstitutional in 1997 (AL, Aug. 1997, p. 11-12).
However, it is not clear that nations that lack an equivalent of the First Amendment will find the provision for universal free expression in Article XIX of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a sufficient deterrent to government regulation of Internet content. Hence, libraries outside the United States may experience government mandates regarding labeling and government regulation of that content.
C. JAMES SCHMIDT is professor at the San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science.
The state of the art of rating:
* Movies--Five guidance categories (MPAA).
* Sound recordings--Parental advisory logos (RIAA).
* Computer, video games--Five age-based categories plus content descriptors (ESRB).
* TV--FCC-mandated "V-chip" encodings; six categories that indicate sexual or violent content.
* Cyberspace--Stay tuned.…