WASHINGTON — Which should prevail, artistic freedom or a tool that could be used to protect children from foul language, nudity and violence in movies?
Over Hollywood's long-standing objections, some members of Congress are endorsing legislation that would allow DVDs to be "sanitized" -- stripped of scenes that parents don't want their children to see or hear -- without first requiring the consent of studios or directors.
To the movie studios, the bill is merely the most outrageous of a wave of anti-indecency legislation moving through Congress, spurred by pop star Janet Jackson's breast-baring performance at the Super Bowl.
As part of that continuing crackdown, the Senate on Tuesday attached a "decency" provision as a rider to its annual defense bill. The measure would increase penalties tenfold for radio and TV broadcasters that violate federal indecency rules. Approved 99 to 1, the bill would allow the Federal Communications Commission to raise fines from a maximum of $27,500 to $275,000 per violation, up to $3 million a day per broadcaster.
The House earlier this year overwhelmingly approved a similar measure, virtually ensuring tougher penalties will reach President Bush's desk. The House version, which passed 391 to 22, would raise fines to a maximum of $500,000 per violation and require a hearing on revoking a broadcaster's license after the third offense.
House and Senate members will now try to iron out differences in the two chambers' bills, including an element in the Senate legislation that could temper the growth of media conglomerates by invalidating newly relaxed ownership rules.
Yet for all the action in Congress on Tuesday, some in Hollywood are starting to focus on the DVD-sanitizing legislation that's waiting just offstage.
A House bill now gaining momentum would make it so that sanitizing films do not violate federal copyright law as long as the edited copies are restricted to home use, as opposed to being shown in theaters. DVDs are sanitized through filters that can remove any kind of material regarded as offensive -- profanity, nudity or violence, for example.
Called the Family Movie Act, the bill awaits action in the Judiciary Committee, where it has won an endorsement from the influential chairman of the panel, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R.-Wis.). No comparable bill has been introduced in the Senate.
The legislation was introduced in response to a fight being waged in federal court in Colorado by the studios, the Directors Guild of America and 16 prominent directors against ClearPlay Inc., a Utah company that sells filtering software and DVD players with special filtering features built in.
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, told a congressional committee last week that such editing without the input of the directors and studios "disfigures the original vision of the creator."
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood) mustered a different argument against the legislation, saying it would send the wrong message to parents. "Technology should not become an excuse for avoiding the hard work of parenting," he said.
But Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas), the bill's chief sponsor, suggested that Berman's position didn't reflect the challenges facing households in which kids are constantly being bombarded by the media.
"It's unrealistic and impractical to expect parents to monitor their children's video habits 24 hours a day," Smith said. "They need help."
The studios and the Directors Guild contend that Smith's bill, by removing dialogue and scenes, can ruin entire films.
In "Austin Powers in Goldmember," for example, 22 minutes were edited from the 94-minute film, said Ernie Getto, an attorney representing the guild in a lawsuit against film sanitizers. "It's not watchable," he said. "It makes virtually no sense."
For his part, Berman called the nude scenes in "Schindler's List" crucial to conveying "the debasement and dehumanization suffered by concentration camp prisoners."
The lawmaker also warned that unauthorized editing could lead to political mischief. "Anti-tobacco groups could offer a filter that strips all movies of scenes depicting tobacco use," Berman said. "Racists might strip 'Jungle Fever' of scenes showing interracial romance between Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra, perhaps leaving only those scenes depicting interracial conflict."
Critics of the legislation also say that parents already have the MPAA's rating system to keep children from watching movies they shouldn't see.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has not taken a position on the House bill. But he hinted that it might be best for both sides to forge some sort of compromise. "The fastest and surest way to protect and promote family-friendly viewing rights," he said, "is for artists and consumers to negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution."