Commentary

Supreme Court’s Porn Ruling Could Work Elsewhere

The Supreme Court recently shielded the Internet from Congressional attempts at censorship, and sent the latest incarnation of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) back to a trial court for review. The majority expressed doubt that a ban on sexually explicit Web sites was the “least restrictive” means of protecting children from harmful material, and sent the case back to a lower court for review. What’s interesting — and heartening — about the ruling is that the majority justices emphasized that parents ought to be the primary line of defense between their own children and speech that might offend or corrupt them. In an America that’s increasingly asking government to assume the rule of parent (or at least of nanny), that’s a welcome sentiment — because the Supreme Court’s admonition to parents and lawmakers in the COPA case makes a lot of sense in other policy areas, too.

Perhaps the most obvious example is alcohol. Government at all levels has become disturbingly sympathetic to anti-alcohol activists’ plans to put more stringent restrictions on advertising. Several cities across the country banned beer, wine, and liquor ads from city billboards. Several others have put moratoriums on such ads within view of schools, daycare centers, and public housing — for all practical purposes a ban.

The no-fun scolds at the Center for Science in the Public Interest have teamed up with Nebraska Rep. Tom Osborne to strong-arm college sports programs across the country into banning alcohol commercials during broadcasts of college basketball and football games. Osborne introduced House Resolution 575, which calls upon all NCAA programs to do exactly that. Reps. Frank Wolf and Lucille Roybal-Allard co-sponsored the bill. So far, over 130 schools have signed on, including 38 Division 1 programs.

As of March this year, four class-action lawsuits have been brought against alcohol manufacturers for what the plaintiffs claim is a pattern of advertising directed at an audience too young to drink. These claims are spurious at best. They’re critical of alcohol manufacturers for advertising in magazines like Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, and Spin, because of those magazines’ high underage readership. That leaves the alcohol industry with the conundrum of figuring out how to market a legal product to 23 year-olds without hitting 20 year-olds at the same time.

Anti-alcohol activists have made no secret of their intent. They plan to use tobacco litigation as a roadmap for attacking the alcohol industry.

Then there’s obesity. Longtime food, nutrition, and lifestyle activists are now calling upon the federal government to restrict, regulate or ban the marketing of food to children. Such bans have been largely ineffective in countries such as Sweden. But the censors press on. At a recent summit on obesity, nutrition activist and NYU professor Marion Nestle insisted that “parents simply can’t compete” with the onslaught of television ads for cookies, chips and candied cereals.

Well, of course they can. They can turn off the TV. And they can say “no” from time to time at the grocery store.

No matter. Lawmakers are moving forward. Sen. Tom Harkin said on the floor of the U.S. Senate that the marketing of junk food to children is “out of control.” He lamented that the FCC didn’t impose aban on such marketing when it first considered the issue back in the 1970s (at the time the concern was tooth decay, not obesity). Harkin has since introduced a bill restoring the FCC’s ability to regulate advertising to children.

On the global stage, a consortium of elected officials, advocacy organizations, and “children’s advocates” recently sent a letter to Dr. Joon-Wook Lee, director general of the World Health Organization, which calls for a worldwide ban on the marketing of “junk food” to children. For its part, the WHO recently passed an anti-obesity program which insists that governments “address the problem” of marketing to children. The organization also recently put out a plan to reduce alcohol consumption in Europe, which included the directive that EU member nations “implement strict controls … on the direct and indirect advertising of alcoholic beverages.”

The philosophy behind all of these measures is one of victimhood in need of government’s protection. It preaches that we’re mere naives to advertising, and that we’re helpless when it comes to our children.

Here’s hoping the Supreme Court’s ruling this week will generate some momentum toward reversing that mentality, at least here in the U.S. If we’re hesitant to allow state censorship of something as pervasive, potentially harmful, and aggressive as Internet pornography (and we certainly should be hesitant), it’s difficult to see why we would allow the censorship of comparatively benign alcohol or junk food ads.

If the Supreme Court suggests that parental supervision and filtering software are better defenses against web porn than state interference, it’s hard why we should treat beer or cookies any differently.

Radley Balko, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute, is the author of the report, “Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking.”