Smoking in Films: MPAA Raises Free-Speech Concerns in Legal Battle

Should MPAA ratings be considered a form of free speech? The association thinks so, and it's pushing forth that argument as it battles a lawsuit that aims to ban smoking in films that aren't rated R or NC-17.

A couple of months ago, India was grappling with critics who hoped to ban smoking in Bollywood films.

Hollywood, as it turns out, is knee-deep in a similar controversy. Currently, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) are grappling with a lawsuit that plaintiffs hope will force a ban on smoking-related imagery in all films rated G, PG, or PG-13—i.e., films that children can watch in movie theaters without adult supervision.

A key argument in the case is whether movie ratings should be treated as a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. Plaintiffs in the class-action suit, led by Timothy Forsyth, say they shouldn’t. Additionally, the plaintiffs argue that there is significant evidence that films that feature smoking help to encourage children to pick up the habit.

“Defendants can give no rating to films with tobacco, they can give a very restrictive rating, but what they cannot give is a false certification that such movies are appropriate for unaccompanied children under 17, when they know that the scientific community has overwhelmingly said that it is not,” the plaintiffs argued in a filing that opposes MPAA’s efforts to strike the lawsuit.

MPAA and its fellow defendants have disputed the characterization that such ratings aren’t protected speech, instead suggesting that ratings are a form of opinion. In an April filing, acquired by the Hollywood Reporter, the defendants the suit “is a misguided attempt to upend basic tort principles and core First Amendment protections to force the Classification and Rating Administration (‘CARA’)—the movie ratings body that the MPAA and NATO jointly operate—to change the opinions it expresses through its movie ratings system.”

If such a lawsuit were to be successful, the defendants warn that the film industry could face further scrutiny for films “that depict alcohol use, gambling, contact sports, bullying, consumption of soda or fatty foods, or high-speed driving.”

Films cited by the plaintiffs as featuring smoking include a number of franchise films, including those for The Amazing Spider Man 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Men in Black 3, and Dumb and Dumber To.

A scene from "Dumb and Dumber To," a film cited in a class-action lawsuit for including a smoking scene. (YouTube screenshot)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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