Commentary

Why I’m Afraid of Mandated “Educational” Television

By Solveig Bernstein
December 23, 1996

The Federal Communications Commission has declared that it is in the “public interest” to require television broadcasters to broadcast a certain quota of hours of “educational” children’s programming. Perhaps you think that sounds nice. But think a little more. When the government rates speech, approving some speech and disapproving other speech, all of us are endangered, children as well as adults.

Children’s vulnerability to what they read and see and hear is often cited as a reason to allow the government more control over speech directed at young audiences. In fact, that makes any measure of government control over speech directed at children even more dangerous. Children are susceptible to propaganda. Totalitarian governments from Hitler’s to Stalin’s have known that; the dictator’s picture hangs on classroom walls.

It may seem like a long journey from Nazi Germany to today’s cuddly, warm and child-friendly FCC. It is not. That we might agree that the FCC means well is fundamentally irrelevant. Hundreds of years of world history teach us that powers given to government to do good can just as easily be used to do bad. We do not know what changes in personnel and policies the future will bring. A single election can shift the political tide to barbarism.

The danger is underscored by pointing out just how arbitrary the judgment to require “educational television” in the public interest really is. Psychologists have argued for years about how children learn best and what they should learn, and how much time they should spend “learning” as opposed to just having fun. The FCC doesn’t really know, but it has decided that the Smurfs are educational and GI Joe is not. And rating certain material as “educational” misleadingly implies that parents needn’t be concerned if their children sit staring at it for hours; kids are probably better off reading or playing outside. The FCC is essentially experimenting on children, without any real evidence that it will do any good. The agency is responding to the winds of political fashion, not to science.

Fortunately, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was written without special exceptions that let the government control speech to children. It reads “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” It does not instruct Congress to force publishers or broadcasters or anyone else to speak in such a way as to help us bring up our children. Nowhere is that role mentioned among Congress’s enumerated powers.

Under our Constitution, dictating how and what young children learn is not a proper role for federal bureaucrats. Allowing the FCC to set quotas for “educational” programming sets a precedent that may in the future bring children into great danger. In the long run, our children would not thank us for failing to protect them from government or for teaching them by example that the First Amendment is just an inconvenience to be swept aside on the slightest pretext.

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