I'm posting this article here because there is an ongoing effort in Kansas to pass a law requiring public libraries to use MPAA ratings to infringe on the free speech rights of teenagers. The MPAA ratings system is a voluntary system that is not government policy. Use of MPAA ratings in public libraris is a violation of the Library Bill of Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
Movie Ratings Are Private, Not Public Policy
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom
Over the years, questions have arisen concerning the application of
Library Bill of Rights principles to specific library practices. One
the first, a 1951 Peoria, Illinois, case involving films in the public
library, required the American Library Association (ALA) to clarify
application of the Library Bill of Rights to nonprint materials. A
recommendation by the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee and the
Audio-Visual Board resulted in the ALA Council's adding an
footnote explaining that the Library Bill of Rights applies to all
materials and media of communication used or collected by libraries.
More than fifty years later, these questions have resurfaced at the
Memorial Public Library District. Members of the library board
that the library use the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
movie rating system to restrict minors' access to movies. The
is an excerpt from Deborah Caldwell-Stone's recent presentation to
board on this issue. Deborah is deputy director of the ALA Office for
Over the past several months, advocates claiming to advance "family
values" and "community standards" have urged several local library
boards to adopt policies restricting minor patrons' access to DVDs and
videos rated R, or Restricted, by the Motion Picture Association of
America (MPAA). Adoption of the MPAA ratings system as a means of
restricting minors' access to certain films or videos raises
legal concerns for public libraries.
A Private and Voluntary Ratings System
To understand the legal risks involved, it is important to understand
the role of the MPAA and the nature of its ratings system. Despite
public perception to the contrary, the MPAA is not a government
nor are its activities sanctioned by local, state, or federal
government. It is a private trade association whose members produce
distribute motion pictures in theatres, on television, and by release
videotapes and DVDs. As one of its services on behalf of its members,
the MPAA administers the Classification and Ratings Administration
(CARA), the organization responsible for awarding ratings to motion
pictures. The MPAA administers CARA as a means of giving parents
advance information about a film, so the parents can decide whether a
film is appropriate for their child.
A filmmaker who wants an MPAA rating affixed to his or her film
the film to CARA, whose reviewers watch the film and decide which
is appropriate - G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. Ratings can be assigned
based upon certain criteria - the number of expletives used in the
dialogue, or the number of times a body part is exposed, or the number
of murders or injuries that take place within the film. Ratings can
also be assigned based on how the reviewer perceives the film as a
whole. Whatever the rating, it is meant to serve only as an
advisory for parents. An MPAA rating is not, and has never been, a
legal determination that a particular motion picture is "obscene," or
"obscene as to minors," or "harmful to minors." Only a court of law
make that determination.
The MPAA itself emphasizes that its ratings system is strictly
voluntary and has no force of law. No law requires a filmmaker to
submit a film for a rating, and no law requires a theatre or video
dealer to follow the MPAA ratings guidelines when selling movie
or DVDs. Those who participate in the MPAA ratings system are doing
voluntarily to provide a service to parents.
The Library as Government Agency
Public libraries, as government agencies, are bound by the
of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In Board of
of Island Trees v. Pico, the Supreme Court affirmed that the First
Amendment protects the library user's right to receive information in
the public library. 1
Public libraries cannot restrict a user's access to library materials
on the grounds that the content of the materials is somehow
objectionable or unsuitable. Rules and policies that restrict access
library materials because of their content create a presumption that
library is engaging in an unconstitutional prior restraint of
constitutionally protected speech. This presumption arises even when
the library user is a minor, for minors unquestionably possess First
Amendment rights. As the Supreme Court noted in Erznoznik v.
Jacksonville, "speech that is neither obscene as to youths nor subject
to other legitimate proscription cannot be suppressed solely to
the young from ideas or images a legislative body thinks unsuitable
them."2 In addition, restrictions on users' access based on the
of library materials must meet exacting requirements to pass
constitutional muster. For adults, this means a court must find that
film is obscene under the test set out in Miller v. California.3
In the case of minors, such restrictions can only be enforced when a
court of law determines that a movie is "obscene as to minors" or
"harmful to minors" under Illinois law.4
When a library imposes restrictions on a user's access to a film
a court of law determines its legal status, the library, as a
agency, must provide a means and an opportunity for a hearing on the
validity of the restriction at the earliest possible time.
A public library's use of MPAA ratings as a means of restricting
minors' access to films fails to comply with any of these legal
standards. The MPAA candidly admits that its reviewers make no use of
the tests for obscenity imposed by state or federal law when they
ratings to films.5
Instead, the reviewers employ imprecise, subjective, and frequently
changing criteria that provide no notice to the filmmaker or the
regarding precisely what content is proscribed, or why. And when a
public library adopts the MPAA ratings to restrict minors' access to
certain films, there is no means at all for judicial review of the
prohibition. The public library's restriction on films represents a
presumptively unconstitutional prior restraint on speech. Public
Institutions and Private Standards Don't Mix
As a government agency, the public library is empowered to set policy
and create rules for the operation of the library by the authority
granted to the library's board by state and local laws. And as a
government agency, its policies and implementation of rules are
to review by the legislature and the courts.
But when a library uses MPAA ratings to restrict users' access to
films, it is delegating its power to make rules for the operation of
library to a private, unregulated organization that is not subject to
overview by a court or legislature. By giving over the library's
authority to make policy to a private organization - authority
by Illinois state law to the library district and its board - the
library can violate the Due Process Clause, which assures citizens
every act taken by a government entity is subject to proper checks and
balances under the law.
Courts across the country have relied upon these constitutional
standards to invalidate the use of MPAA ratings as a means of
restricting access to films in a variety of contexts. Among the cases
are Engdahl v. City of Kenosha, which invalidated a Kenosha, Wis.,
ordinance using MPAA ratings to prohibit minors from seeing certain
films6 and Motion Picture Association of America v. Specter, which
invalidated a criminal statute penalizing theatres that allowed minors
to view films rated "not suitable for children" by the MPAA.7
More recently, federal courts in Chicago and St. Louis invalidated
local ordinances that relied upon a private ratings system for video
games to regulate minors' access to video arcades, reinforcing the
principle it is unconstitutional for a government entity to use
ratings systems to restrict minors' access to protected expression.8
Thus, any library choosing to use or enforce the MPAA ratings as a
means of restricting young people's access to videos or DVDs in its
collection risks a significant constitutional challenge to their
Such challenges may consume staff and board members' time in court
defending the policy. In addition, as a government agency, the
runs a financial risk in any lawsuit based upon the First Amendment
the Constitution. Should the library lose the legal challenge to its
use of the MPAA ratings system, it can be required to pay the
plaintiff an award of court costs and attorneys fees. Such awards are
authorized by Section 1983, the federal law that grants citizens the
right to sue the government when the government violates their civil
Ethics and the Law
Restricting young people's access to films, videos, and DVDs is not
only a legal issue for libraries and librarians; it is an ethical
as well. Article V of the ALA's Library Bill of Rights unambiguously
calls on libraries and librarians to support and defend the young
person's right to freely access ideas and information in the public
library. The ALA statement "Free Access to Libraries for Minors: An
Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights," outlines the ethical
obligations of the library and the librarian in regard to youth,
parents, and access to library materials:
"Parents-and only parents-have the right and the responsibility to
restrict the access of their children-and only their children-to
resources. Parents or legal guardians who do not want their children
have access to certain library services, materials, or facilities,
should so advise their children. Librarians and governing bodies
assume the role of parents or the functions of parental authority in
private relationship between parent and child. Librarians and
bodies have a public and professional obligation to provide equal
to all library resources for all library users."9
Libraries are not strangers to the controversy over the use of the
ratings system to restrict access to films in a library's collection.
In 1989, in response to this controversy, the ALA Council adopted the
resolution, "Access for Children and Young People to Videotapes and
Other Nonprint Formats: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of
Rights," to provide librarians with guidelines for addressing the
"Policies which set minimum age limits for access to videotapes and/or
other audiovisual materials and equipment, with or without parental
permission, abridge library use for minors. Further, age limits based
on the cost of the materials are unacceptable. Unless directly and
specifically prohibited by law from circulating certain motion
and video productions to minors, librarians should apply the same
standards to circulation of these materials as are applied to books
"Recognizing that libraries cannot act in loco parentis, ALA
acknowledges and supports the exercise by parents of their
responsibility to guide their own children's reading and viewing.
Published reviews of films and videotapes and/or reference works which
provide information about the content, subject matter, and recommended
audiences can be made available in conjunction with nonprint
to assist parents in guiding their children without implicating the
library in censorship."10
Use of the MPAA ratings system to restrict young people's access to
films and videos is a violation of the Library Bill of Rights and an
impermissible prior restraint on free expression. Public libraries
considering the use of the MPAA ratings to restrict young people's
access to videos and DVDs should instead turn to other, proven methods
to guide young people's choices in the library. The library's
professional staff can be asked to create collection development and
usage policies that are consistent with both professional ethics and
law; acquire materials that provide parents with the resources and
information they need to guide their child's choices; and develop
programs and workshops for young people that teach them the critical
viewing and thinking skills they need to make good judgments for a
lifetime of reading and viewing.
1 Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982).
2 Erznoznik v. Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205 (1975).
3 Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973).
4 Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629 (1968).
5 Benjamin Svetkey, "Why Movie Ratings Don't Work," Entertainment
Weekly, November 25, 1994.
6 Enghahl v. City of Kenosha, 317 F. Supp. 1133 (E.D. Wis. 1970).
7 Motion Picture Association of America v. Specter, 315 F. Supp. 824
(E.D. Pa. 1970.) Other court decisions invalidating government
entities' use of MPAA ratings include Swope v. Lubbers, 560 F.Supp.
(W.D. Mich. 1983) and Rosen v. Budco, 10 Phila. 112 (1983).
8 American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick, 244 F.3d 954
(7th Cir. 2001); see also Interactive Digital Software Association v.
St. Louis County, 329 F.3d 954 (8th Cir. 2003).
9 "Free Access to Libraries for Minors: An Interpretation of the
Library Bill of Rights," American Library Association, 1991.
10 "Access for Children and Young People to Videotapes and Other
Nonprint Formats: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,"
American Library Association, 1989.