Should communities rate films for kids?

The opening here of Steven Spielberg's blockbluster film ''Poltergeist'' has raised the knotty question of whether parents should have a say on which films are open to their children.

By a 10-to-2 margin, a state court jury voted last month to deny a City of Dallas request to force the Hollywood distributor of ''Poltergeist'' to advertise the film as unsuitable for children.

By ruling in the distributor's favor, the jury overrode the city's Motion Picture Classification Board - a local film-rating panel - which said ''Poltergeist'' was too violent and scary for young people. Even though the local rating board is made up of many parents - and is supposed to mirror community opinion - the jury in effect ruled that the distributor knew better than the citizens of Dallas which films are suitable for youths.

Dallas is not the only city in the United States to have a film-rating board. Nor is Dallas the sole city to have locked horns with the Classification and Rating Administration, the Los Angeles-based film-industry group that sets the national ratings of ''G,'' ''PG,'' ''R,'' or ''X'' appearing on most films.

In Chicago, for example, the police department has had a film-rating board for more than 50 years, according to John Vrdolyak, a sergeant in the department. The five civilians who serve on the board give films either an ''X'' or a ''Non X'' rating to designate them suitable or unsuitable for persons under age 18, Vrdolyak says. But on a number of occasions, he added, the local board's rating has been overruled by an appeals board or rejected by a judge after a film company sued to have the rating changed.

In Milwaukee and Detroit, boards similar to the 26-member Dallas board screen films for obscenity. Rating boards in nine other US cities existed in the 1970s before state supreme courts declared them unconstitutional.

Dallas, however, was one of the first cities to have a film board and provided a model for boards elsewhere.

And the Dallas board, appointed by the City Council, remains unique. Dallas appears to be the only city in the country where a theater owner can go to jail for allowing youths into a film rated ''R'' or ''X'' by the Dallas board. There is no law forcing filmmakers to submit their films for the national ratings; the system is voluntary for both filmmakers and theater owners, according to Richard D. Heffner, a spokesman for the Classification and Rating Administration. As a result, there is rarely any policing or enforcement of the ratings, and many foreign films are not rated at all.

The Dallas City Council created the film-rating board in 1966 in response to a belief here that local citizens are better judges of films than, say, a Hollywood producer. The feeling was that if Dallas residents reviewed films, ratings would more accurately reflect community values.

Today, the Dallas board uses three classifications to rate movies: suitable for young people, in which case anyone may see the film; not suitable for young people, in which case youths under 16 are not admitted without a guardian; and suitable for young persons with exceptions, in which case the board uses letters such as ''S'' for sexual conduct, ''L'' for obscene language, and ''V'' for violence to identify the objectionable parts for the film. Typically a film shown in a theater in Dallas is rated both by the national and local boards, and that rating has the force of ''law.'' Advertisements in local newspapers and on TV and radio carry both ratings.

In the case of ''Poltergeist,'' the story of a California family terrorized by ghosts, a conflict arose because the national board rated the film PG - open to anyone with parental guidance suggested - while the Dallas board found the film too frightening to be shown to youths and thus rated it unsuitable. City attorneys sued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists Entertainment Company to prevent the showing of ''Poltergeist'' after the film distributor informed the city it had rejected the board's ''not suitable'' rating, refusing to display the rating in advertising and at theaters.

In testimony, jury members got to see not only ''Poltergeist'' but Speilberg's earlier smash hit, ''Raiders of the Lost Ark.'' The film company claimed partly that scenes of goblins and gore in ''Poltergeist'' would be no more upsetting to children than the violence in ''Raiders.'' G. William Jones, a Southern Methodist University professor who testified for MGM-UA, had this to say at the time:

'' 'Poltergeist' helps children confront the fears that all of us have had of something under the bed or something in the closet. It shows us that our fears are conquerable.'' Noting the film's hopeful ending, Jones said, ''In 'Poltergeist,' worse comes to worse. But the people are victorious. As a matter of fact, good old mom and dad are able to buffer their children from the forces of the other world.''

The jury members apparently agree. Deliberating one hour, they concluded that ''Poltergeist'' has scenes ''depicting serious bodily injury to people'' but that the film's violence was not ''patently offensive . . . with respect to what is suitable for viewing by young people.'' The jury overturned the Dallas film board's rating and opened ''Poltergeist'' to the city's young people.

In an interview afterward, Kent S. Hofmeister, a city of Dallas attorney who represented the local board in the ''Poltergeist'' case, said he was disapponted by the ruling but that the board is a worth- while idea.

''It's a positive thing,'' Hofmeister said. ''It helps parents make a decision as to what their children can and cannot see. It's of benefit to parents willing to monitor what their kids are watching.''

In Hofmeister's view, the citizens of Dallas ''use both the local rating by the Dallas board and the national rating system'' to guide their viewing decisions.

There have been other cases where the Dallas board disagreed with the national rating. One studio decided not to fight the rating. And another studio deleted an objectionable part of a film in order to get a suitable rating.

Whether the national ratings that come out of Los Angeles reflect the mores of middle America is, of course, open to debate. But in any case, Heffner, a spokesman for the national rating board, says that the group's purpose is not to mirror the nation.

''Our task is not to be representative of the American culture as much as to represent in our conclusions what we believe most American parents will want their children to see,'' says Heffner, a Columbia University-trained historian and now professor of communications and public policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. ''Our function is to try to make educated guesses or estimates of what most American parents are thinking about the new films.''

Since the ''Poltergeist'' case ended, no other film company has challenged the Dallas film board or the national ratings. But in East Lansing, Mich., a related problem has arisen in which parents are challenging the right of a theater owner to deny unaccompanied children access to an R-rated movie that the parents say the children may see.

The parents wanted to leave the children at the movie house and pick them up after the film, ''Animal House,'' was over. The theater owner blocked the children's way. The American Civil Liberties Union, citing Michigan's anti-discrimination laws, is suing on the parents' and children's behalf.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.