Serial killer entertainment: freedom of expression or toxic products?

We can't always rely upon good corporate citizenship to protect children from sensationalist products (Serial killer cards and games)

By Nancy Toran-Harbin | 1994-09-01 12:00:00

Recently I presented a brief to the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs in Ottawa. The committee is addressing proposed draft amendments to the Criminal Code which would restrict the sale of "crime cards and board games" to persons 18 years of age and older.

Crime cards, a.k.a. serial killer cards, are in a format almost identical to sports cards. The latter feature a picture of a sports hero (for example a baseball player) on one side and the player's statistics on the opposite side. Serial killer cards feature a painted pictorial of a serial killer or his victims (sometimes splattered in blood) on one side and the killer's "stats" on the other. Serial killer stats include the number of victims, preferred methods of torture, execution, and sentence received, provided the killer has been convicted. Serial killers are glorified to hero status while victims are reduced to a mere statistic. Among those presenting to the committee were three mothers whose children have been savagely murdered. Priscilla de Villiers stated her daughter's sadistic murder and her family's torment could be "reduced to five letters, namely I kill." Another mother tearfully relayed that her murdered young son appears as a statistic on a serial killer card. Debbie Mahaffy, whose 14-year-old daughter was slain, stated that as with sports cards, the value of particular killer cards increases. A Jeffrey Dahmer card (unautographed) is now apparently worth $7. Mahaffy indicated a new series of "victim" cards are scheduled for release, including a depiction of Sharon Tate (murdered by the Charles Manson "family") featuring both her throat and abdomen slit open. Tate was in an advanced state of pregnancy when she was murdered.

One serial killer board game boasts it "comes with its own body bag." The game contains a large number of "dead baby" markers with the object of the game being to kill as many children and babies as possible before being apprehended by the FBI. An instruction card from a board game states, "You feed a child poison and then watch it slowly die."

Parliamentarians have expressed concerns that banning or imposing age restrictions upon these "entertainments" may result in a Charter challenge. In the event of a Charter challenge, presumably the court's first question would be to determine whether or not these cards and games qualify as forms of expression eligible for protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Should the courts determine in the affirmative to that question, a determination would then need to be made whether the infringement on expression is reasonable.

Let us examine the first question, that of whether or not these materials should be the subject of "freedom of expression," or whether they are simply consumer products entitled to no special protection and indeed subject to consumer protection legislation and laws respecting product liability. Legal precedent indicates Canada's long history of active measures to safeguard consumers. Protection from hazardous products has long been accepted as the public's right. Legislative limits have routinely been applied to commercial enterprises to protect consumers from harmful products and unconscionable transactions. Purveyors of serial killer cards and board games may wish to cloak their toxic products under the guise of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Consider the context and spirit wherein these rights and freedom were conceived. Our cherished freedoms of expression and speech were honorably devised as protectionist laws, largely to protect individuals from political and/or religious oppression. Such protectionist laws were never intended to shield commercial enterprise from responsibility or from product liability. Such noble laws were never intended to protect purveyors of cruelty and hatred.

In Canada, rights do not exist in a vacuum, but rather have always been subject to responsibilities. Balance needs to be struck and maintained between individual rights and freedoms and the needs of society. In a free society, manufacturers' rights to produce and distribute products must not be separated from the responsibility to provide products which are safe and marketable. A manufacturer of toothpaste for example, must ensure the product's inherent properties will not abrade consumer's throats. Product safety is a paramount consideration. Products which appeal to children, the most vulnerable segment of society, are subject to a high standard of care. Owners of swimming pools for example, even those with no children, must maintain safety precautions such as fences, locked gates, etc. as it is recognized that swimming pools are child magnets.

Board games and collector cards are child magnets. Mahaffy, who has lobbied against the importation of serial killer cards, relayed to theJustice Committee her experience of watching seven and eight-year-olds in a playground laughing and excitedly discussing the cards with words such as, "He killed how many? Oh neat!" Do not be duped into believing these toxic products have anything to do with the civil liberties of their purveyors. Serial killer cards and board games have nothing to do with freedom of expression and speech whatsoever. They are nothing more than sensationalist products designed solely for economic gain, plain and simple.

In the nebulous area of "entertainment" do we really need protection from commercial enterprise or should we rely upon the good faith of the industry and market forces? Does the market not simply respond to needs and demands of the marketplace? Certain elements of the commercial entertainment industry have amply demonstrated a wanton disregard for both the health and well-being of the public in general, and their consumers in particular. According to The Toronto Star(f.1) a tobacco corporation spent more than "$950,000 in a span of four years to ensure its cigarette brands [appeared] in more than 20 movies including payments of at least $800,000 to action film star Sylvester Stallone... Jim Bergman stated, 'It's purposely putting advertising in the movies but pretends that it's not advertising, knowing that the movies that Sylvester Stallone is in appeal to children and youth more than anyone else.'" Such irresponsible corporate actions fly in the face of legislation designed to prevent youngsters and adolescents from a glamorized portrayal of smoking. Clearly we cannot always rely upon good corporate citizenship to protect society, and children in particular, from toxic products.

Conversely if we object to a particular product, why not simply choose to boycott the product? With many products such action may be adequate, but I submit that we as a society and as individuals are impacted by others' consumption of toxic products. The American Psychological Association's Commission on Violence stated, "For the last 20 years there has been one overriding finding ... the mass media are significant contributors to the aggression behavior and aggression related attitudes of many children, adolescents and adults."(f.2) As de Villiers so poignantly illustrated, we may live in a personally protected and sheltered environment, but "the real world comes to us." We may not keep a gun in our night table but if our neighbor does, our children may be accidently shot in our neighbor's home. In the U.S. 13 children are killed with firearms every day.(f.3) When 4,745 children are needlessly wiped out by firearms in one year we are deeply affected by the choice of others.

In their quest for the fast buck, irresponsible corporate citizens routinely depict women and children as defenceless and often willing targets for all manner of abuse, torture, and mayhem. Piecemeal legislation geared to deal with killer cards in isolation is not adequate and cannot be effective. Given today's technology and the information superhighway, these degrading and dehumanizing portrayals are easily duplicated and can be applied to virtually any medium. Thus to be effective, legislation needs to be broadly aimed. An amendment to the Criminal Code's section on obscenity to include "undue exploitation of violence" could be effective to help curb this trend. Similarly, an amendment to the Criminal Code's section on hate propaganda to include women and children as identifiable groups could also be effectively implemented. Such amendments would be in keeping with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and with Canadian public policy to uphold the dignity of all persons.

With respect to the notion of restricting the sale of serial killer cards and board games to those 18 years of age and older, I would submit that restricting these products from children, while applaudable in principle, will not prevent these materials from reaching either young and impressionable children or youth. My experience as a film classifier indicates beyond a reasonable doubt that such restrictions are not adequate. During my tenure as Vice Chair of the Ontario Film Review Board I heard from innumerable parents of their distress that young children were routinely able to access films and videos which were classified as restricted to persons 18 years of age and over. Children as young as five were viewing videos featuring graphic portrayals of sadistic serials killers such as Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct.

Similarly, when I appeared on a cross-Canada TV show on CBC respecting classification of video games, teens from across Canada confirmed that they had witnessed children as young as four to six playing ultra violent video games such as "Mortal Kombat" and "Night Trap," notwithstanding the more mature classification which the manufacturer placed on games. One adolescent boy told me he found it a challenge to get access to such restricted games as "Night Trap." As a citizen, a parent, and a child advocate it saddens me to see our young people being so shamelessly exploited. The dehumanization of one Canadian degrades us all. As a founder of FACE (Family Abuse Crisis Exchange) I deal with the results of violence every day. If we claim a dedication to reduce violence within our society, surely now is the time to stand up and say, "In Canada we will not glorify evil, we will not make heroes of those who decimate our children, and we will protect our society from toxic products."


(f.1) The Toronto Star, May 20, 1994, p. B2.
(f.2) The American Psychological Association's Commission on Violence, 1993.
(f.3) The Toronto Star, Jan. 21, 1994, p. A15.

Nancy Toran-Harbin is a barrister and solicitor and a founder of FACE, 2301 Weston Rd., Weston, Ontario, M9N 1Z7, (416) 617-7900.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1994

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1994, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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