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Making Distinctions

What is the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable expression? Can that distinction be embodied effectively in a code or set of criteria? In "the First Amendment" you can explore how these questions have been addressed at the federal level in the United States. But many organizations and individuals other than the federal government make rules about artistic content and its distribution. Voluntary rules or guidelines often have a considerable influence over what may or may not be seen, and in fact may determine how it is shaped in the first place.

Here are examples from voluntary, nongovernmental codes and filtering criteria that might have an impact on artistic distribution or expression. These codes are current as of January 2000.

Consider the works presented in the Flashpoints section of the Culture Shock Web site. Which works would be restricted and why, under these codes?

    Video Film Rental: BLOCKBUSTER carries movies that are rated with an R or lower by the MPAA. BLOCKBUSTER does not carry NC-17 or X-rated movies. Some unrated as well as R-rated films and some video games that BLOCKBUSTER carries are designated as Youth Restricted Viewing (YRV) due to their mature nature. If the primary member has activated YRV on the account, then only members older than 17 may rent these products.
    --A major video rental chain explains their rule on films with reference to the Motion Picture Association of America's designations.

    Video Games: Titles are rated with a letter code, [for instance] "Teen (T)" [rated games] have content suitable for persons ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violent content, mild or strong language, and/or suggestive themes.

    Definitions of these terms:

    Mild Language: Product contains the use of words like "damn." Strong Language: Commonly referenced four-letter words to include anatomical references.

    One recently rated title was given an M (17+) for Animated Blood & Gore, Animated Violence, Suggestive Themes.
    --Examples of how the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a nonprofit industry group, rates video games.

    Audio Recordings: The [Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics label] is a notice to parents that recordings identified with the logo contain strong language or depictions of violence, sex or substance abuse. Parental discretion is advised. The label is a nonremovable logo that record companies voluntarily place on products to better inform consumers and retailers while also protecting the rights of artists.
    --The Recording Industry of America, a trade association, explains its voluntary warning system.

    Images on the World Wide Web: Full Nudity: Pictures exposing any or all portions of the human genitalia. Please note: The Partial Nudity and Full Nudity categories do not include sites containing nudity or partial nudity of a non-prurient nature. For example: Web sites for publications such as National Geographic or Smithsonian Magazine or sites hosted by museums such as the Guggenheim, the Louvre, or the Museum of Modern Art.

    Sexual Acts: Pictures showing, text and/or audio describing anyone or anything involved in explicit sexual acts and or lewd and lascivious behavior, including masturbation, copulation, pedophilia, intimacy involving nude or partially nude people in heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian or homosexual encounters. Also includes phone sex ads, dating services, personal ads, adult CD-ROM's and adult videos.

    Gross Depictions: Pictures showing, text or audio describing anyone or anything which are crudely vulgar or grossly deficient in civility or which show scatological impropriety. Includes such depictions as maiming, bloody figures, autopsy photos or indecent depiction of bodily functions.

    Intolerance: Pictures showing, text or audio advocating prejudice or discrimination against any race, color, national origin, religion, disability or handicap, gender, or sexual orientation. Any picture or text that elevates one group over another. Also includes intolerant jokes or slurs.
    --Cyberpatrol, an affiliate of The Learning Company, makes filtering software for Internet sites. These are some of their criteria defining material which can be blocked using their software.

    Books in Libraries: The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.

    I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

    II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

    III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

    IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

    V. A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

    VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

    --The American Library Association, a group for public and private libraries, provides guidance about setting policies in libraries across the nation. It is not binding, however, on members; libraries, or their governing bodies, may set their own rules for access.

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