I sometimes think there is some hidden law titled, “The South Carolina Family Law Attorney Full Employment Act,” which requires family court judges to issue child-related restraining orders so vague that, in theory, an infinite number of attorneys could spend an infinite amount of time arguing about whether that restraint has been violated. Such is the case with the recent rise in restraints against exposing children to “age inappropriate entertainment.” Can anyone state with certainly what “age inappropriate entertainment” actually means?
Admittedly there’s some entertainment that’s clearly age appropriate or age inappropriate. Few would argue that the latest Pixar movie is “age inappropriate” for a nine year old (though I bet some parents might). Few would argue that pornography is not “age inappropriate” for that same nine year old. Still, the “gray” area in this restraint is quite vast. Further, these restraints seek to impose the family court’s general judgment about what is good for children over a parent’s judgment regarding a particular child’s needs and interests.
The vague nature of this language creates problems with enforcement. In order to support a finding of contempt for violation of a court order, “[t]he language of the commands must be clear and certain rather than implied” Welchel v. Boyter, 260 S.C. 418, 421, 196 S.E.2d 496, 498 (1973). An “R” rating is defined by the Motion Picture Association of America as “Under 17 not admitted without parent or adult guardian.” Thus, arguably, it could be age appropriate for a parent to take a child of any age to an “R” rated moved because the child is with a “parent or adult guardian.” In contrast, a “PG” rating is defined as “Some material may not be suitable for children.” A seventeen year old is still a child; arguably, a PG movie might contain “unsuitable” material. What about the “PG-13” rating, defined as “Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13”? There’s much wiggle-room between “may be inappropriate” and “inappropriate.” These restraining orders are frequently too vague to be enforced unless one is “lucky” enough to draw a judge willing to impose his or her own standards, in which case a parent (sometimes one’s client; sometimes the other party) might be held in contempt for violating a vague provision of a court order
Further, these restraints impose the government’s own views of “appropriate” media upon parents, in violation of a parent’s constitutionally protected liberty interest in raising his or her children. For completely justifiable reasons I have exposed my two daughters to differing entertainment at different ages because of their own unique interests and temperaments. Entertainment that might frighten or traumatize one ten year old, might delight and enlighten a different ten year old.
For perfectly valid and justifiable reasons I took my older daughter to see Sam Mendes’ version of Cabaret on Broadway at age 10 ½ and to see Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” at the Savannah Film Festival at age 16. I wouldn’t want a family court judge telling me I couldn’t. While there were elements of Cabaret that even I felt were a bit age inappropriate, what I remember about these events are my daughter being able to interact with Neil Patrick Harris, who played the MC in Cabaret, after the show, and being enthralled with the Q&A with Malcolm McDowell after “A Clockwork Orange.” In contrast my younger daughter finds even the television show “House” disturbing. Thus, while she’s seen a few movies that are R-rated for sexual themes or language, we don’t take her to movies that are PG-13 rated for gore or horror. Exposure to media and entertainment are parenting and judgment decisions that need to be based on the individual child, not a part of some uniform prohibition imposed by a family court judge. Further it’s a parent’s right to balance the issue of exposure to performances that might be a bit too “adult” for a child against the desire to expose the child to rare or exceptional artistic experiences.
The few cases in which my client believed such a restraint was needed, we fashioned the restraint to be specific, with language such as “absent both parties’ consent, neither party shall expose the child to R-rated movies until the child is age 16” or “absent both parties’ consent, neither party shall allow the child to play teen rated video games until the child is age 12.” Unlike a vague restraint against “age inappropriate entertainment,” such clear guidelines are easy to interpret and easy to enforce.
Absent a showing of harm, the government (which includes family court judges) shouldn’t be interfering with the constitutionally protected liberty interest parents having in raising their children. These restraints against “age inappropriate entertainment” should be resisted when imposed by the family courts and, when the parents agree to these restraints, they should be specific rather than vague.