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Stick with self-regulation

While the entertainment industry's irresponsibility deserves criticism, Al Gore would be wise to avoid suggesting remedies that would undermine our Constitution.

If Al Gore's new attack on the entertainment industry didn't have such serious implications for free speech, it would be silly, a good plot for a political satire. The story would go like this: A vice president, in an administration that basks in the entertainment industry's wealth and glamor, turns around and threatens to use the power of the White House to censor the industry's message. Able to keep a straight face while playing both roles, Gore could be cast as himself.

In an interview with the New York Times Sunday, Gore outlined his strategy to regulate the entertainment industry. He accused it of false advertising and gave industry leaders six months to "clean up their act" or face federal sanctions. The industry misleads parents, Gore said, by promising to protect children from inappropriate material through its voluntary rating systems, then markets the movies, video games and music in children's media.

Again trying to have it both ways, Gore would pass new laws to censor entertainment advertising, yet still be "consistent with the First Amendment." It is difficult to see how a court would consider government censorship consistent with the constitutional right of free speech.

In a report released Monday, the Federal Trade Commission made similar accusations about entertainment advertising. It said some films and video games meant for viewers 18 and older were purposely and aggressively marketed to children because "the younger the audience, the more likely they are to be influenced by TV advertising," according to one industry document.

"They knew what they were doing," said FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky.

Such behavior is contemptible. But the FTC was practical in recommending a fix. "Self-regulation is especially critical in this area, given the First Amendment protections that prohibit government regulation of these products' content," the FTC concluded.

Even Gore's moralizing opponent, George W. Bush, had a more tempered response, saying the industry and parents should share responsibility for protecting children from inappropriate material.

Those who market movies, video games and music deserve strong criticism, at times. Children still have access to gratuitous violence and degrading sexual references in some films, computer games and songs. The problem can, and should, be corrected in the marketplace, however.

The FTC report suggested three sensible solutions:

The respective industries' trade associations should prohibit material rated for adults to be marketed to children and provide sanctions for those who fail to comply. The important point here is that the industries would monitor themselves.

Retailers should increase their compliance with the rating system by checking identification before selling or renting material intended for those 18 or older to young people; theaters should enforce R ratings by requiring proof of age or parental consent. Kmart and Wal-Mart have already announced policies to require identification of customers purchasing M-rated (over 17) games.

The industry should help parents understand ratings and the reasons for them with explanations on the packaging and in advertisements.

While irresponsible entertainment deserves public criticism, so do public officials who would undermine the Constitution for political gain. Gore should reconsider his position on government censorship of entertainment advertising.

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