V-Chipping Away at the First Amendment

By Solveig Bernstein
February 26, 1997

Congress is gearing up for hearings on the television rating system. Since Congress can not constitutionally directly regulate violence on television, we got the V-chip and a “voluntary” television rating system. What’s wrong with this picture? When politicians scapegoat the media into “self-regulation,” they make a mockery of the First Amendment. They mock the problem of violence, too, by pretending that public hearings on ratings can substitute for parental involvement and real social reform.

The V-chip is unlikely to be used in poor households with older televisions, which don’t contain the chips, or in homes with neglected kids. It’s most likely to be used by parents already committed to involvement in their children’s education —that is, in homes where the children are at low risk for developing violent behavior.

Truly addressing the problem of violence means tackling welfare and education reform. But the debate over the adequacy of the rating system promises politicians endless opportunities to spout anti-violence rhetoric, and that, it seems, is more appealing than hard choices about absent fathers and schools that can’t teach kids how to read.

So the benefits of the chip will be almost nil. The costs to our freedom are significant. Once the V-chip is in place, nothing stops government from using informal pressures to approve or disprove ratings. Lawmakers could force ratings of a far different kind than those originally proposed. That should have been predicted but apparently was not. When the V-chip law was passed, the television industry stated that ratings would be “totally voluntary. There will be no government involvement of any kind. [G]overnment censorship … no matter how benign in its public declarations, is fundamentally in conflict with more than 200 years of … freedom of speech.”

But already Congress is holding hearings to see if perhaps the rating system should include more information — or perhaps rate advertising, too. Some members of Congress favor something like the old Canadian rating system, which included separate ratings for profane language, sex, and violence, as well as age-based labels. Canadians shelved that system when parents found it too complicated.

The idea that politicians could pressure broadcasters to adopt one system rather than another is ominous. As the winds of politics shift, there’s no reason for lawmakers to confine their attentions to sex, swearing, and violence. Perhaps V-chips will be used to block negative political advertising, alcohol ads, or diaper advertising. V-chips could be installed on the spines of books. After all, political and religious works, including the Bible and the Communist Manifesto, have given rise to far more violence than has television. And we can have V-chips in our computers, with a “voluntary” ratings system approved by Congressional hearings to ensure that we do not meet with any violence on the Internet.

The whole idea of the First Amendment is to protect the media from the political process. The V-chip combined with hearings about “voluntary” rating does away with those protections in an instant.

What if we had no V-chip? What are busy parents to do? Turn the television off, or sit down with their children on the weekend and explain which programs are off limits? If that common-sense solution is unreasonable, there’s other technology. Around the time the V-chip law was enacted, a new industry was beginning to offer parents different blocking options. If there were significant demand for blocking technology, those devices could be developed further. Several rating systems could have competed to serve parents with different values and concerns. That solution was shouldered out of the way by the monopoly V-chip.

The V-chip plus hearings turn the art of informally harassing the press into a science. Congress can regulate the press without the bother of going to court, running a rating system by remote control. Maybe Orwell had it right — the constitution can be defeated by a computer chip.

Solveig Bernstein is assistant director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute.