Issue 74, Summer 1999

The killings in the Littleton, Colorado high school have sparked a wave of soul-searching over whether the entertainment industry is partly responsible for creating a “culture of violence.” Predictably, there are also questions about the meaning of the First Amendment. Can there be too much of a good thing? Does the First Amendment really protect all the blood and gore that is splattered on our TV and movie screens?

The simple answer is “Yes.” Of course the First Amendment protects violent imagery. Otherwise, think of all the things that would be vulnerable to censorship: the Bible, the Iliad; Agamemnon, Faulkner’s Light in August, and James Dickey’s Deliverance; films such as Schindler’s List, Paths of Glory, and Apocalypse Now; art like The Rape of the Sabine Women, Picasso’s Guernica, and most religious art graphically depicting the Crucifixion; theatre, ranging from Shakespeare (MacBeth, Henry V, Titus Andronicus) to the Punch and Judy Show. And we haven’t even gotten around to the evening news.

Violence has been a feature of high and low-brow entertainment throughout recorded history. From the Roman Circus to the wrestling match, humans have shown a fascination with violence and a desire to observe it, sometimes in safely simulated versions, and sometimes confronting the real thing—as with public executions, which have been a “spectator sport” at various times and places. Perhaps this should not be surprising, given that violence, pain, and suffering is a familiar, if terrifying, part of everyday life. No wonder artists and ordinary people struggle with it, and dwell on it in art, entertainment, and fantasies.

Some people draw a distinction between “gratuitous” violence and violence which is used to convey a message. They might approve of Saving Private Ryan or Clockwork Orange, but balk at the Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Natural Born Killers. These movies may receive the same rating, but as everyone knows, ratings can’t distinguish between “good” and “bad” violence. Often, that judgment is in the eye of the beholder. Even if it weren’t, who would decide for all?

H.L. Mencken once observed that for every complex problem there’s a simple solution, and it’s always wrong. That pretty well sums up the problem with the current attack on violence in the media. Which isn’t to say that the industry couldn’t improve its product in ways that would make these attacks less frequent and less credible. Having a right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it. The First Amendment allows entertainment pitched to the lowest common denominator, but certainly doesn’t require it.