There is very little government regulation of media content in the US. Classification of content is generally performed by industry on a voluntary basis. This is largely due to the freedom of speech protections found in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Various legislative attempts to censor or restrict content have been declared invalid by the Supreme Court on this basis.
Films are classified by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), an independent organisation comprised of parents, established by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Participation in the scheme is voluntary, but most cinemas agree to enforce the MPAA film classifications for commercial reasons. Some of the smaller or independent studios have chosen not to participate in the scheme due to cost.
The CARA assigns classifications of G—General Audiences; PG—Parental Guidance Suggested; PG-13—Parents Strongly Cautioned; R—Restricted; and NC-17—No One 17 and Under Admitted. Admission to NC-17 films is restricted to adults, while R-rated films may be viewed by persons at least 17 years of age or children accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. In the 1990s, classification descriptors such as ‘contains mild language and some crude humour’ were added in order to increase transparency about the specific reasons for a film’s classification.
DVD classification is also voluntary. DVDs generally carry the classification assigned by the MPAA for the film previously released in cinemas, though it is not uncommon for producers to add additional ‘unrated’ content to DVD releases. DVDs that have not been previously exhibited in theatres may be submitted to CARA for classification or released as ‘unrated’. By industry agreement, retailers screen customers to ensure that DVDs rated R or NC-17 are not purchased by individuals under the age of eighteen.
Computer games are classified by the ESRB, an independent industry body which employs specially-trained game classifiers who typically have experience with children to evaluate computer games. While participation in the scheme is voluntary, the vast majority of game developers submit their games to the ESRB because major retailers have agreed to carry only rated copies of computer games.
Games are classified in six categories: EC (appropriate for children 3 and older); E (6 and older); E 10+ (10 and older); T (13 and older); M (17 and older); and AO (18 and older). Less than one percent of games are rated AO. There are also approximately 30 ‘content descriptors’, which identify the type of content—such as violence, sex or language—that led to the classification. A recent attempt by California to make the ESRB prohibitions on the sale of M or AO-rated games to children, legally enforceable, was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
Television programs are classified by television stations according to the TV Parental Guidelines. The Guidelines were developed by industry and are part of a voluntary scheme adopted by the majority of television networks in the US. The Guidelines have been approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As of 2000, all television sets are required to include a V-chip, which allows users to block programs with objectionable content. Producers self-assign classifications, ranging from TV-Y (all children) to TV-MA (mature audiences only), and may also use content descriptors identifying the source of the classification. The FCC has yet to rule on the regulatory status of IPTV.
On both free-to-air television and radio, material which is ‘indecent’, defined as ‘material containing patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity;’ or ‘profane’, defined as ‘including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance,’ cannot be broadcast between the hours of 6 am and 10 pm. No such time restrictions are placed on cable networks; however, all stations are barred from airing obscene material at any time. ‘Obscene’ has been defined by the Supreme Court as material that is prurient in nature; completely devoid of scientific, political, educational, or social value; and in violation of local community standards.
Due to freedom of speech protections afforded by the First Amendment, internet content is largely unregulated. However, internet content is not exempt from laws regarding libel (defamation), intellectual property, child pornography, obscenity, etc, and internet activity in violation of these laws can lead to criminal prosecution. In addition, sites may also be penalised for using misleading domain names to deceive persons into viewing obscenity or other material harmful to minors.
The 2001 Children’s Internet Protection Act made the implementation of content filters in schools and libraries a condition of certain federal government grants. The government has also partnered with private industry to accomplish policy goals. Some agreements between government and private enterprises exist to rapidly identify and respond to the existence of child pornography online. Law enforcement agencies promote identity verification systems online and pressure private companies to take on voluntary regulatory initiatives, which in some cases have entailed identifying specific material and asking website owners or ISPs to remove it.
Pornography that is not deemed ‘obscene’ is covered by the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protections and widely available to adults through publications, videos, and the internet. The US does not require that pornography be classified; however, many producers voluntarily label pornographic films with the non-trademarked classification of ‘X’ to indicate adult content. In most states, laws prohibit the sale of pornography to persons under 18 years of age (17 in some states).
Production, distribution, or possession of child pornography, defined as ‘the visual depiction of a person under the age of 18 engaged in sexually explicit conduct,’ is a criminal offence punishable by up to life imprisonment in the case of repeat offenders. In 2003, the US passed the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today Act (PROTECT Act), which strengthened protections against child pornography and amended the definition of child pornography to include computer-generated images of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.