After the carnage at a Colorado movie theater, timed to coincide with a massacre scene in a Batman movie, many people blamed Hollywood for glorifying gun violence. A few months later, we saw the horrible bloodbath of children at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school. Again, people complained that the entertainment industry glorified guns in movies, television and video games.
We all search for answers, but Hollywood is not one of them. After the Columbine tragedy, in 1999, where two teens killed fellow high school classmates and themselves, President Clinton ordered the Federal Trade Commission to study whether Hollywood was to blame. It found no causal link: “Whatever the impact of media violence, it likely explains a relatively small amount of the total variation in youthful violent behavior.”
Other psychological studies also show no causal connection between watching violent video games or movies and acting violently. The best one can find are minuscule effects, such as children making louder noises for a few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game. Moreover, if juveniles shifted from televised gore to children’s literature, they would find no shortage of carnage. The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales (the book, not the Disney movie) tells us that after the wicked queen tried to poison Snow White, her punishment was that she had to dance in red-hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.”
Commentators routinely criticize Hollywood for “aggressively marketing violence” to children. What does it mean to “market” to juveniles, anyway? MetLife markets its life insurance products using Snoopy and the Peanuts gang. Is MetLife trying to scare young children by talking about death? Perhaps Hollywood and MetLife are conspiring to get children accustomed to death so they will be less reluctant to attend scary movies.
Owens Corning features the Pink Panther touting, of all things, insulation. When Owens Corning uses the cuddly panther to publicize a forecast that winter heating bills could be 40 percent higher than last year, it must assume the little tykes will nag their parents to buy more Owens Corning insulation.
We have traveled this road many times before. For example, there was an effort to blame society’s woes on the entertainment industry in the 1940s and ‘50s. A psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham crusaded against violent comic books. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings on how violent comic books (like Superman) were responsible for corrupting youth and causing crime. More than 2,400 years ago, Plato’s “Republic” complained of the “decaying” morals of the youth, who “riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions.”
It would be funny were it not for the important First Amendment principles at stake. The Supreme Court has made it clear that Congress cannot censor movies, CDs, video games or comic books unless they are constitutionally obscene — a term of art that the case law has defined in a very limited way. Violence, even gory violence, is not “obscene” in the constitutional sense. The government violates the First Amendment if it attempts to regulate simply because violent movies, video games or music lyrics are “marketed” to children.
Of even greater concern is the precedent set by government regulation. Will the government try to prevent children from watching violent portions of the evening news on television? Will we remove newspapers from classrooms if they contain pictures depicting violence?
Will plaintiffs’ lawyers jump into the fray, arguing that Hollywood should be liable if people see a movie and then engage in a copycat crime? If the plaintiffs’ lawyers succeed against Hollywood, what will prevent them from turning to the news media? That’s the problem when politicians start toying with the First Amendment. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it doesn’t want to return.
A study by the Secret Service after the Columbine tragedy found no easy answers. We cannot create a profile of these people. They rarely make direct threats before they act. Expelling students for minor infractions would not help Newtown, and, if the shooters are students, the expulsion may spark them to return to school with a gun. Metal detectors do not help because shooters usually make no effort to conceal their weapons. Newtown Elementary did not admit visitors until after an identification review by a video monitor, but the shooter shot his way through a locked glass door. When people are mentally ill and willing to die, laws do not help.
Ronald D. Rotunda is a professor of jurisprudence at Chapman University.