States' Legislation Targets Video Violence

Times Staff Writer

Can minors go to video stores and buy or rent sexy, violent movies--R-rated or unrated--without parental consent?

They often can. That's why state legislatures have been inundated with bills in the last few years seeking to limit minors' access to home videos that are aimed at adults. Currently 65% of homes with TVs also have VCRs. Many parents are concerned over their youngsters' access, through video rental, to movies they wouldn't be allowed to see in theaters.

On the other hand, the video industry is concerned that a bill recently passed in Missouri is the tip of a dangerous legal iceberg. The bill not only prohibits the sale or rental of explicitly violent videos to minors, but also requires that such materials be kept in an area where the kids can't even see them.

Colorado passed an anti-violence law affecting home video last year, but it was aimed at restricting minors' access to films depicting actual violence--basically documentary footage. The Missouri bill targets simulated violence--the kind most often seen in movies. Similar bills are pending in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Ohio.

The Missouri law is the first to deal with home-video packaging, clamping restrictions on pictures on the cassette boxes regarded as lurid. Packaging bills are pending in California and Massachusetts.

Two other kinds of bills also limit minors' access to R-rated and unrated videos. One type is the ratings-display bill, which requires the Motion Picture Assn. of America (MPAA) rating to be displayed on boxes. Maryland, Tennessee, Illinois, Georgia, Florida and New York have passed such laws. The other category is a ratings-enforcement law, which prohibits sale or rental of R- or X-rated videos to minors. Tennessee and Rhode Island have ratings-enforcement laws.

Some states are attacking the problem by the roundabout route of civil liability. Illinois has a bill awaiting the governor's signature that would make video manufacturers and distributors liable where it can be proved that videos provoked someone to commit a crime. Michigan has two civil liability bills pending.

According to Gail Markels, counsel for the MPAA, nearly all the video legislation is on a state level. So far, no local governments have passed significant laws in this area.

The Maryland ratings-display law, passed in 1984, was the first law geared specifically to video. While relatively few video-specific laws have passed since then, there has been a dramatic increase in the number introduced.

The MPAA often works to defeat these bills. "Our main defense is that the home video industry is self-regulating," Markels said. "We point out that there's no need for the state to get involved because the industry is doing OK by itself."

The MPAA, Markels said, is not in favor of minors having access to excessively violent or sexy materials: "We just don't want unnecessary restrictions on the free flow of videos in the market place. We don't want video retailers to have to worry about being arrested for selling or renting videos. Many of these bills are so vague and so broad that they could apply to just about anything rented or sold. If the retailers get into heavy self-censorship, that would restrict what's available to everyone in the home-video market place."

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