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Utah House receives bill targeting R films, youths

Theater owners could face $300 fine, jail time

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Let a minor into an R-rated movie with explicit sex scenes and the theater owner could face a $300 fine and 14 days in jail.

That's according to Rep. David Hogue's amendments to the Harmful Material to Minors Act, which passed a House committee Wednesday night on a 4-2 vote and will now be considered by the whole House.

But there are only five days left in the 2001 Legislature, and it will take some quick action to get Hogue's HB304 into law.

Two months ago, Hogue told the Deseret News he was looking at incorporating the current, voluntary movie rating system — PG, PG13, R and NC-17 — into the Utah code and impose fines against theater and video rental store owners who didn't make good-faith efforts to keep children from viewing or renting inappropriate films.

But that proved unworkable, the Riverton Republican told members of the House committee.

Instead, Hogue decided to include movie viewing in the Harmful Materials to Minors Act. The rating system has nothing to do with his bill now.

Instead, if a movie theater owner or manger "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly allows" a minor into a film that, to a minor, is "patently offensive" or, taken as a whole, has no serious value to the minor, he is guilty of a specially defined Class A misdemeanor.

"I think most of these cases would go to a jury, and it would be up to the jury and the judge" to decide the standard of what is patently offensive and has no serious value, Hogue said.

Class A misdemeanors are usually a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. But Hogue changed the penalties for a first-time offense, believing some local theater owners may be trying to keep kids out of R-rated movies and shouldn't be so harshly treated.

While many area theater owners oppose the bill, at least one of them can see some positives that might come out of the film-ratings furor.

Art Proctor, longtime owner of the Avalon Theatre, 3605 S. State, said in an interview that he would hate to see theater owners or employees go to jail but added that increased penalties "might wake some of them up about what's going on, how mad people are about this.

"Maybe then they'll realize how much responsibility they have — that they're the ones with the final say of whether these kids get in," he said.

Proctor, who has only shown two R-rated movies in three decades at the Avalon, said he is sickened by the increasing violent and profane content in many of today's movies.

Still, Proctor worries that legislating theater policies may be going too far and believes parents have a responsibility to monitor their children's filmgoing habits.

"You can't watch them 24 hours a day, but a lot of these problems could be taken care of in the home," he said. "The parents just need to say no."

Hogue told the committee he "wanted to get (theater owners') attention." Many multiplex theaters allow a minor to buy a ticket for a PG13 or PG movie, but once the ticket-taker takes the ticket at the entrance to the lobby the minor can "walk into any of eight or 10 theaters and see whatever film they want," including R-rated movies that may contain material unsuitable for teenagers or even younger children, he said.

The Utah Eagle Forum spoke in favor of Hogue's bill. But Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, wondered if even 14 days in jail is too much for a first offense.

"I wouldn't be opposed to lowering that," said Hogue. But he noted that the judge can sentence up to 14 days. "It could be less" or no jail time, he said.

Hogue said movie violence can be just as harmful or more so than sex scenes. But the Harmful Material to Minors Act only deals with sexual displays, and he couldn't find a way now to include violence. "But I'm going to look at that, and I hope" something can be prepared for the 2002 Legislature on violence, he said. "Violence is a serious problem."

One legislator complained that it is really the parents' responsibility to keep their children from viewing inappropriate material. "We are just shifting the liability from the parents, where it belongs, to someone else" — the theater owner or manager. "And that's not right," said Rep. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi.

Contributing: Jeff Vice.

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com