« IRE Better Watchdog Workshop | Main | The Institute for New Media Studies celebrates soon-to-be released Eyetracking Project research. »

Robert Corn-Revere explores the drive to regulate violence in the media in annual Silha Lecture

By Patrick File


Corn-Revere speaks to a packed house at Cowles Auditorium in the Humphrey Center.
Photo by Terry Faust

Attempts to control violence depicted on television and in video games are likely to continue, even though "the kids are all right," according to the 2007 Silha lecturer.

Attorney Robert Corn-Revere delivered the 22nd annual Silha Lecture, titled "The Kids Are All Right: Violent Media, Free Expression and the Drive to Regulate," to an overflow audience at the Cowles Auditorium on the Twin Cities campus on Oct. 1, 2007. A partner with Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C., Corn-Revere has been involved with major media regulatory proceedings since the late 1990s, most recently serving as lead counsel for CBS in CBS Corporation, Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission (06-3575), the Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" case, which he argued before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 11, 2007.

According to Corn-Revere, events such as the grisly mass murder-suicides at Columbine High School in 1999 and Virginia Tech University in 2007 have led commentators and legislators to blame media violence for youthful rage.

Corn-Revere said that although lobbying groups and legislators have tried in recent years to mandate regulatory regimes for violent content in video games, movies and music, courts have struck down every such attempt. Most often, Corn-Revere said, legislators have tried to extend the narrow traditionally accepted categories of unprotected speech, such as obscenity, to encompass violent content. State and federal courts have resisted these strategies, however, ruling that violence in the media deserves as much First Amendment protection as that in literature or entertainment, and citing the practical problem of determining which media should be protected and which should not.

Corn-Revere said that laws aimed at banning the sale of violent video games to minors have been struck down by courts in Oklahoma, Indiana, Missouri, Washington, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Louisiana.

Such consistency among the courts notwithstanding, Corn-Revere said, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a report in April 2007 that said Congress can and should act to limit how much violence children are exposed to on television. Corn-Revere was critical of the FCC report, which made no direct recommendations addressing the problems of defining excessively violent content, saying instead, "Congress could do so." He called this "purely a 'let Mikey try it' kind of approach to policy."

One possible solution the FCC proposed was "time-channeling," creating a safe-harbor period when violence on broadcast television would be prohibited. Corn-Revere compared time-channeling to the Maginot Line, a concept that "has become synonymous with a comically ineffective solution to a problem." He said that modern media, which enjoy fuller First Amendment protection than does broadcast television, have made a scheduling-based solution "irrelevant."

However, Corn-Revere said, "technology ... has also made protections available that simply didn't exist when the Supreme Court first considered the issue (of broadcast indecency regulation) in Pacifica in 1978." Popular digital video recorders like TiVo and most modern televisions make it possible for parents to actively monitor the programming their children are exposed to and can block access to some programs and channels they find too violent, he said.

Corn-Revere believes that the social science research upon which anti-media violence legislation has been based is "often mis-described and mis-cited." Courts that have closely examined the social science basis for protecting the interests of children have not found it as compelling as the legislators who have passed the laws, he said.

Moreover, Corn-Revere said, social measures focused on youth show that things are actually "tending to get better for people in that age group." He cited decreasing rates of drug and alcohol abuse among children, decreasing juvenile crime rates, lower youth suicide rates and fewer fights in high schools.

The Silha Lecture is supported by a generous endowment from the late Otto Silha and his wife, Helen.