Advocates for providing parents more choices to screen violence and sexual content out of movies are urging the Trump administration to use its school-safety proposals to push back against major studios' resistance to filtering products.
Conservative groups such as the Family Research Council, the Parents Television Council and the Traditional Values Coalition want the administration to ensure that parents have greater options to filter out unwanted content from movies and other streaming videos as part of its pledge to investigate children's consumption of violent entertainment in the wake of the Parkland high school shooting.
The White House last week announced a number of actions and proposals to secure schools and attempt to prevent more deadly school shootings. Part of the plan includes the creation of a commission on school safety chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that plans to study school safety and the "culture of violence," including the "existing entertainment rating system and youth consumption of violent entertainment," the White House said in a release.
Several of the conservative groups also signed on to a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking him to tie—at least in part—the Justice Department's approval of the upcoming Disney and 21st Century Fox merger to a requirement that the studios back away from their legal battles against technology companies that provide filtering services for parents.
"Filtering technology allows parents to remove specific elements of mature content such as violence, strong language, or sexually inappropriate images and sounds from movies and TV shows they watch in private," the groups wrote Sessions. "Disney's (and Fox's) continued efforts to drive the filtering industry out of business is a hot topic among family advocacy groups."
The studios, the groups argued, are trying to push "Hollywood values into the homes of middle America, and by doing so, they have ignored alarms raised by groups such as the Parents Television Council, whose research has shown that the major streaming platforms (such as Amazon, Google and Netflix) are unsafe for children and lack adequate parental controls."
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter. Disney and 21st Century Fox did not respond to inquiries.
The studios have successfully argued in court that filtering services are illegally circumventing copyright protections to alter and distribute more family-friendly versions of their content.
VidAngel, the content filtering company that has fought a lengthy legal battle with Disney, Fox, and other major Hollywood studios, filed Chapter 11 reorganization last year, two months after losing a major court battle with Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros.
Following the court injunction, VidAngel changed its model from one of buying, copying and editing DVDS and slicing out unwanted sex, violence and language and delivering those copies to customers for a fee to providing edited versions of content on streaming platforms, including Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO.
VidAngel says the studios are trying to create insurmountable legal hurdles to filtering, which it argues is protected by the 2005 Family Movie Act. That law was the first that permitted the development of technology to "sanitize" potentially offensive DVD and video on demand content.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit hasn't viewed VidAngel's activity as permissible under the law, dealing the company a major legal blow last year.
Last summer, the court's three-judge panel found that "even if VidAngel employs technology that enables filtering, the [Family Movie Act] exempts that service from the copyright laws only if the filtering is from an authorized copy of the motion picture."
VidAngel and its supporters argue that the court's interpretation of the Family Movie uses an outdated standard that applied when DVDs were the prevailing private-viewing technology. Consumer preferences have since swung in favor of streamed content that can be accessed on multiple devices, including smart phones, they argue.
Two authors of the Family Movie Act, former Rep. Spencer Bachus (R., Ala.) and John Hostettler (R., Ind.), co-authored an amicus brief with Catholic University law professor Susanna Frederick Fischer in favor of VidAngel's case.
They argued that the original intent of the law was to give parents the ability to watch the films in their original form or in a form that screened out violence or sexual content, regardless of the technology used to do the filtering.
"That was clearly the intent of Congress when it enacted the FMA," Fischer said in an interview. "Why wouldn't you want to give parents this kind of technology? It can enable the child to still participate in popular culture, but they aren't exposed to the things that the people closest to them believe might harm them."
Fischer also said the Motion Picture Association of America movie rating systems are failing to provide consistent measures for parents.
She pointed to an Annenberg Public Policy Center study released last year that found that there is more gun violence in popular PG-13 movies than in the biggest R-rated movies, meaning that gun violence continues to grow in movies deemed suitable for children.
A staffer for the Parents Television Council sat in on the White House school safety meeting last Friday. During the gathering, Tim Winter, the Council's president, said entertainment industry representatives repeatedly stated that the adult video games and movies with heavy violence are not intended for children.
Winter said the entertainment industry is not being honest if you consider the Annenberg study's point about level of gun violence in PG-13 movies, which he said are directly marketed as appropriate for children 13 and under to watch with some parental guidance.
If the industry starts with the premise that some parental control is needed for children to watch these movies, why not give parents far more control with a technology that provides filtering for specific content of streaming videos and movies, Winter asked.
"Why would they be opposed to that? Especially when it provides a whole new market and revenue stream for the studios?"