A bullet dodged
Whew. Gov. Jon Huntsman rightly vetoed House Bill 353, which would have given voluntary media-industry ratings of movies, DVDs, video games, CDs and even books the weight of law and made sellers responsible for enforcing them.
Somehow, this misguided piece of legislation zoomed through the Legislature with hardly an opposing vote, and, we suspect, without a thorough vetting. It would have amended the Truth in Advertising Act by labeling it a "deceptive trade practice" if a seller were to "provide a good or service labeled with an age restriction or recommendation" to a buyer younger than the age recommended for the item.
So, if a clerk in a department store sold a DVD of a movie rated PG13 to a 12-year-old, the store owner would be breaking the law and subject to a $2,000 fine and attorney fees, even if the child's parents approved of the purchase. If the clerk sold the same child a book recommended for teenagers 14 or 15, the business could be fined again. This was patently ridiculous legislation, easily challenged in court as unconstitutional, since the First Amendment applies to such media products and protects the right of Americans of any age to purchase them.
The bill ignored the fact that industry ratings of movies, books, music, video games and the like are voluntary and not meant to restrict anyone from buying the items. The ratings can provide helpful information to parents, but should not supercede a parent's decision to let a child buy a game or DVD. In that, HB353 flew in the face of Utah's traditional support of parents' rights and would have forced parents, as well as the state, to accept the judgment of an industry rating panel about whether a movie or book is suitable for a child of a certain age.
Is that really what legislators believed they were voting for when they signed on to the bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, and Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem? Probably not, but the legislation's broad language invited a whole set of consequences that were not intended.
Among those was the very real possibility that stores would decide to avoid risking fines by simply removing ratings and recommendations from the products they sell. If that happened, parents would be left on their own to sort DVDs, video games and CDs to keep out the bad ones.
In their misplaced zeal to limit access to media they don't like, our legislators might have eliminated the very tools parents need to set limits on what their children see and hear. We dodged a bullet on this one. Having misfired badly, the Legislature should not bring it up again.