Could Regulation of Movie Theater Noise Violate the First Amendment?
A Motion Picture Association of America executive told the Public Safety Committee on Tuesday that its attempt to regulate noise levels in movie theaters would violate the First Amendment.
The legislation seeks to create a standard that says movie theater owners would not be allowed to show a movie or movie trailer with noise levels that exceed 85 decibels. The Commissioner of Administrative Services would be responsible for making sure the theaters are in compliance.
“There are serious First Amendment implications raised with this legislation because if it were to be put into law, the state would be saying how a motion picture or how speech could be presented,” Van Stevenson, senior vice president of government affairs for the MPAA, said Tuesday.
He said once the state starts regulating the noise level of movies, it would have regulate the noise levels at concerts and sporting events.
“What do you do with any kind of activity where there would be loud noises?” Stevenson said.
The National Association of Theatre Owners and the MPAA reached an agreement in 1999 that movie trailers could average no more than 85 decibels.
“Yes, there are sometimes spikes,” Stevenson admitted. “Art imitates life.”
He said there are going to be situations where there is music and a “crescendo in the symphony, explosions, jets taking off and landing.” But he said the industry has gone to great lengths to make the decibel in the theater “safe and secure.”
He said the bill is unnecessary because of the voluntary standards already established.
But William Young of Stamford testified that it’s not enough.
He explained to lawmakers that 85 decibels is only an average. There are noises like explosions that go beyond 85 decibels.
In an October 2013 editorial Young said the movie previews were consistently between 75 and 100 decibels with sustained bursts as high as 100 to 110 decibels. On the other hand, feature films averaged about 15 decibels lower in each case, or only one-third of the perceived loudness vs. the trailers.
Young said he’s heard the argument that noise levels have been addressed by the Trailer Audio Standards Association, the MPAA, and the National Association of Theater Owners, “but we strongly believe the result is terribly lame.”
The results of the voluntary standard are applied unevenly, Young said.
“That means trailers with more quiet portions can have loud explosions and still comply to pass the standard,” he said. “This is equivalent to driving from Danbury to Hartford at an average speed of 55 mph with periodic sustained bursts of 100 mph. We certainly have our doubts that the trailers’ loudness is consistent with the standard of 85 decibels.”
Rep. Janice Giegler, R-Danbury, asked if any other states have taken it upon themselves to implement similar legislation.
Stevenson said in his 25 years with the MPAA “this is the first bill I’ve seen like this in any state.”
He said he has no idea how the state would monitor 64 movie theaters in Connecticut.
Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, said when “we can come to agreement on a voluntary basis I’m not one to be mandating or legislating, but I think that this is a conversation worth having.”
She said she believes there is a problem with the noise level in movie theaters.
“I for one have been in movie theaters and blocked my ears,” Hartley said.
But Stevenson said there aren’t a lot of complaints in the area of movie theater noise. Hartley shot back that she doesn’t believe the complaints are a good indication that the standard the industry set for itself is working.
“Who is the watchdog?” Hartley asked.
“It’s ultimately the theater owner,” Stevenson said.
Doug Murdoch, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Theater Owners, testified that the viewing public would lose the “hum and swish of the light sabers” in movies like Star Wars, if the legislation passed.
Hartley reminded Murdoch that not everyone in his industry always follows those standards and there has to be a system set up to enforce them either voluntarily or by state statute.