Scene of the Crime

October 01, 1990

The Motion Picture Association of America's decision to revamp its movie ratings seems likely to provide audiences -- and parents -- with a much better basis for deciding what is suitable entertainment and what is not. MPAA has abandoned the X (adults only) for NC-17 (no children under 17 admitted). The two designations really mean the same thing, but the practical effect will be to make a distinction between serious adult-theme movies and plain and simple pornography, with which X has come to be identified.

The more important change in the rating game is that R, which restricts audiences to adults or children accompanied by adults, will now be accompanied by a brief explanation of why the film might be inappropriate for children. Parents who object to violence but not sexual scenes and vice versa previously have not always been able to determine whether an R movie was one they would like their children to see. Now they'll be better able to decide.

This change in the ratings is a reminder, if anyone needed it, of how the nation's changing sexual mores keep creating political and moral problems. In Cincinnati, an art museum and its director are on trial for hanging an exhibit (open to adults only, by the way, sort of an NC-18 exhibit) which included photographs deemed by local standards to be obscene. We believe this is a first.

On Friday, jurors in the case visited the museum. But the exhibit is gone. The judge in the case would not have allowed this visit to the "scene of the crime" had the exhibit still been there. Incredibly, he has ignored the plain language of Supreme Court decisions about obscenity laws and ruled that the jurors may see only the seven photographs deemed obscene by Cincinnati kulture kops, not the entire exhibit of 175 pictures. The Supreme Court said the obscenity of an entity must be based on the work "taken as a whole." By Cincinnati's legal theory, the Bible or Shakespeare or your average daily newspaper could be tried for obscenity on the basis of a few dirty words.

We said this trial is probably a first. We hope it is a last -- that the eventual outcome of the case will convince even the most cowardly and obtuse of elected judges and prosecutors in the most bluenose communities in the land never again to try this sort of obscenely criminal abuse of the First Amendment's guarantee of free expression.

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