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Who Decides?

Whether you are a harried parent fighting with a 14-year-old about an objectionable video or a member of the Supreme Court assessing nuanced arguments about obscenity, the task of deciding what someone else can or cannot see, read, or listen to is always challenging. Although few of us make cultural decisions for a large number of people in our daily lives -- as librarians or television programmers do -- most of us at least occasionally must wear the censor's hat. There is always something at stake in such decisions, and they can only become more frequent in our media-saturated era.

    Consider this scenario: You are in your living room watching a rented video with your 14-year-old son. A scene you are unprepared for unfolds in the film, containing material that makes you uncomfortable enough that you do not wish your child to see it.

    So who has made decisions that allow the display of this video?

    The Child - - - Requested this film rather than another on your visit to the video store.

    The Parent - - - Consented to renting it for family viewing (and, incidentally, when getting a rental card at the video store chose the option to allow rentals by minors of 'R' rated films, planning to discuss any such rental ahead of time with the child).

    The Video Store Clerk - - - who rents the film without comment, knowing that his 14-year-old brother loved the film, but that some parents have already complained about it.

    The Film Selector for the Video Store Chain - - - who watched the film and found it unexceptional in content or controversy.

    The Newspaper Movie Reviewer - - - who watches films for a living, and found this one good, but makes a point of not flagging potentially offensive content in films. Instead she declines to review films which she finds truly objectionable so as to not give them more publicity.

    The Marketers of the Film - - - who selected the public images to represent and sell the film both in movie theaters and in video and highlighted the scene in question in a trailer the 14-year-old, but not you, his parent, saw.

    The Distributor of the Film - - - who based the decision to carry this film based on its potential profitability alone.

    The Motion Picture Association of America - - - which has rated the film 'R' in accordance with content guidelines, which while subject to debate, provide some information for all involved.

    The Creative Team for the Film - - - writers, actors, designers, director, etc., who argued ferociously about the scene in question, which was first proposed by the director. Because of this controversy, it was shot in three radically different ways and heavily edited as well.

    The Novelist - - - who wrote the original story on which the film was based. The scene in question does not appear in the novel at all, and when she sees the film, she considers it unnecessary, but entirely unobjectionable.

    These decision-makers work in the larger context of the protection of artistic expression in the First Amendment to the U.S.Constitution. But this protection is not absolute. Law enforcement agencies, courts, and legislatures all have a role to play in regulating the objectionable when it falls in the category of obscenity.

    But back to your living room. The film you two are watching is not obscene, but extremely objectionable to you, at least, and you decide to switch it off. You retrieve the tape from the VCR and return it to the video store over your son's objections, who says "Aw, you're just too old-fashioned. I'm sure I can handle anything in that film."

    Next week, while you are away, he rents the film and watches most of it by himself. But when his 9-year-old sister comes in shortly before the scene in question, he quickly switches it off and he tells her that she's too young to handle anything like that.

    Put yourself in all of these roles.Would you have made the same decision? On what basis? How would you defend your reasoning if challenged by someone who disagreed?

    Decision makers like these are part of every case discussed in the Flashpoints section of this Web site. Consider the sequence of decisions which must be made before any artwork is publicly distributed or displayed. Who are these decision makers and what reasoning might they follow?

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