By NICHOLAS IOVINO
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit claiming the film industry puts young lives at risk by not making all movies that include tobacco smoking rated R.
Bay area activist Timothy Forsyth sued the Motion Picture Association of America, National Association of Theatre Owners and six major film studios in February, seeking an injunction to require R ratings for films that depict smoking.
At a hearing last month, Forsyth’s attorney cited “overwhelming” evidence of a causal link between smoking in films and young people getting addicted to nicotine.
Forsyth says the industry has resisted giving films with smoking an R rating, despite recommendations from the World Health Organization, American Medical Association and 31 attorneys general, who wrote letters to the MPAA in 2007 seeking a ban on smoking in films accessible to children.
The plaintiff argues that since 2012, thousands of films depicting smoking and deemed suitable for kids caused more than 1 million children under 17 to become addicted to nicotine, leading to a potential 360,000 premature deaths.
U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg dismissed the suit on Nov. 10, finding that film ratings are considered expressions of free speech, protected from lawsuits under California’s anti-SLAPP statute.
Seeborg rejected Forsyth’s argument that the film industry misrepresents the content of movies by suggesting films with tobacco smoking are “suitable for children under 17 unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.”
Guidelines for a PG-13 rating state that “some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.” Seeborg found that statement did not amount to an intentional misrepresentation.
Ratings for each film are decided by the consensus opinion of board members for the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), an entity controlled by the film industry and theater owners, according to Seeborg’s ruling.
“CARA holds First Amendment rights to express its opinions that are reflected in the ratings system,” Seeborg wrote in his 10-page ruling. “Even focusing on the certification marks alone, that right precludes the basic relief Forsyth seeks in this action – forcing CARA to express different or additional opinions.”
MPAA spokesman Chris Ortman said the industry’s 50-year-old ratings system has “withstood the test of time” because it constantly reassesses sensitivities to violence, language, drug use and sexuality to reflect current parental values.
CARA publicly announced in 2007 that it would consider tobacco imagery as a factor in assigning ratings, but it rejected a “wholesale mandatory R rating for all motion pictures that contain smoking,” Ortman said.
“There were various legal deficiencies in the complaint filed by Timothy Forsyth, and therefore, the MPAA and others filed a motion to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which entitles CARA to provide its opinion on the particular ratings of movies based on their content,” Ortman said. “We are pleased that the court granted our anti-SLAPP motion and motion to dismiss.”
Forsyth’s attorney, David Schachman of Chicago, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Monday morning.
Seeborg found the possibility that Forsythe could fix defects in his lawsuit “remote” but nonetheless gave the plaintiff until Nov. 30 to file an amended complaint.