Clarify indecency without treading on free speech
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
– Bill of Rights, Amendment I
There’s a fine line between decent and indecent material, and while the purveyors of pop culture often tread close, this time it might be big brother that has finally crossed it.
Currently, the Federal Communications Commission, in the wake of the Janet-Jackson-Super-Bowl-breast-exposure fiasco, has been pushing its weight around, cracking down on broadcasters that have otherwise been given a relatively free pass.
Broadcast companies have had to pay for the alleged misdeeds of their programmers and personalities, in the form of fines. Some of the FCC investigative findings are instigated by simple complaints from viewers and listeners.
The legislative branch has entered the game, calling broadcasters into the halls of congress to testify, and hearing what they want to hear: Broadcasters promise a crackdown on offensive material.
Bowing to government pressure, radio giant Clear Channel has even removed syndicated host Howard Stern from six of its stations. In radio, other heads have rolled, and this year television viewers were introduced to the five-second delay.
In political lock-step, the House of Representatives is attempting to strengthen the FCC’s power to control what we see and hear, passing a bill Feb. 11 that would increase potential fines from the current $27,000 per violation to a potential $500,000 per violation. If passed, the bill would also allow the FCC to yank a broadcast license after the third violation. The senate is working on its own bill that has the potential to be even further reaching.
Ultimately, the actions of the FCC and congress amount to institutionalized censorship, and here’s why:
While there are all kinds of rules prohibiting broadcast of indecent material, there is not a clear definition of what it comprises. Certain words, subject matter and images may be included, but broadcasters have no way of knowing, definitively, if what they are sending out on the airwaves qualifies as indecent under FCC rules. By enforcing what amounts to subjective interpretation of indecency, the FCC is forcing broadcasters to place limitations on content that may or may not fall within the commission’s “guidelines” – they don’t know until the bill is in the mail, or their licenses are pulled.
While there should be a governing mechanism to control indecent material (especially illegal material), congress should limit the FCC’s power to control free speech by outlining specific rules broadcasters have to follow. For all other material that may or may not be “indecent,” the marketplace should make its own decisions. We can do that by simply changing the dial.
Free speech is not a commodity that should be doled out to those who say what our government wants to hear. In America free speech is our first and most important right. It is simply indecent to treat it otherwise.