TechKnowledge No. 86

Censoring Violence in Media

By Adam D. Thierer
August 10, 2004

One of my earliest memories involves watching a monster movie on TV. I seem to recall it involved zombies hiding in a closet and grabbing people as they entered the room. Pretty creepy stuff and, quite honestly, I probably should not have been watching it. I’m not sure what mom was doing at the time, but she probably should have turned the TV off or found something better for me to watch.

If we are to believe some members of Congress, however, exposure to such violent images should have turned me into a madman. But even though I went on to watch more violent movies and programs, last time I checked, I still hadn’t harmed or killed anyone. Like millions of other kids who grew up watching cowboy shoot-em-ups, weekend “creature features,” or just plain old cops-and-robbers crime dramas, I learned how to separate fantasy from reality. Are there some unstable kids out there who are negatively influenced by violent images on TV? Sure. But one wonders how big that population really is and whether the root cause of their problems lies elsewhere (bad homes, bad neighborhoods, or even serious mental conditions). The academic literature is all over the place on this question and debates still rage about correlation versus causation when it comes to violent programming and aggressive behavior.

Regardless, our knights in shining armor in Congress are once again proposing to ride to our collective rescue and sanitize television “for the sake of the children.” The “for the children” mantra has quickly become the universal pretext for legislative attempts to censor TV, radio, cable, video games and the Internet. Apparently, if you have the best interests of children in mind, you can dispense with the First Amendment and let the government censor whatever it pleases.

Maybe I sound like a broken record for posing this question in every essay on censorship I pen, but I’m going to go ahead and ask it again: What ever happened to personal and parental responsibility in this country? The responses I get generally fall into one of two camps. One group says personal responsibility died a slow but certain death in this country a long time ago and that I’m just another principled but quixotic dreamer who has yet to come to grips with the inevitability of government censorship. This group doesn’t like the sound of censorship, but is apparently willing to live with it, or they’ve just given up fighting the good fight. Another group, however, openly embraces the idea of Uncle Sam playing the role of surrogate parent in our homes. They lament the fact that media is so ubiquitous in our lives today and say they’ve largely given up trying to keep tabs on what their kids watch or listen to.

Either way, a lot of people appear ready to raise the white flag and let government censor “for the children.” So the censorship crusade du jour, aimed at getting “excessive violence” out of the media, suddenly seems like a very real possibility. The Senate recently included a measure in a military spending bill (how’s that for irony!) that would ban violent video programming on broadcast TV during hours in which children might be in the audience (basically anytime before 10:00 p.m.). And 39 members of the House Commerce Committee recently wrote to the FCC requesting that the agency study what it could do about violence on television. The FCC quickly responded by announcing a new inquiry into the issue. Meanwhile, there are still lurking threats of regulation of supposedly overly violent video games at both the federal and state levels.

But while the censorship bandwagon is really rolling this year in the wake of the Janet Jackson incident, I would hope there are a few brave souls left out there willing to fight attempts by Beltway bureaucrats to dictate what our families can see or hear. The fundamental problem with proposals to censor violence in media is that they will require that the government make myriad “eye of the beholder” decisions about what is “too violent” on behalf of all Americans. Choices that we should be making voluntarily for ourselves and our children are suddenly choices made through the political process, with its coercive ability to silence any views or content it finds unacceptable.

Consider the ramifications of allowing a handful of folks down at the FCC to determine what constitutes “excessive violence.” Are the bloody and occasionally gruesome scenes in CSI and ER excessive, or is that a reasonable depiction of forensic and medical science? Hockey games on prime-time TV feature lots of fights, blood, and lost teeth. For decades, cartoons have offered a buffet of violent acts, and slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges variety features a lot of unforgivingly violent moments presented as humor. Should regulators also censor the many combat-oriented video games on the market today that involve extremely realistic military training and war game scenarios, some of which even rely on the consulting services of former military officials? How about gruesome war scenes from actual combat that any child can see on the nightly news? What about the stabbing, poisoning, and other heinous acts found in Shakespeare’s tragedies? And, for God’s sake (excuse the pun), what about all the violence in the Bible or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ?

I could go on and on, but you get the point. This all comes down to a question of who calls the shots-parents or government-regarding what we are allowed to see and hear in a free society. This is not to say society must celebrate or even defend violence in the media; there are plenty of movies, shows and games that do contain what many parents would regard as a troubling amount of violent content for young children to witness. Parents need to act responsibly and exercise their private right-indeed, responsibility-to censor their children’s eyes and ears from certain things. It’s become increasingly evident, however, that a lot of parents have just gotten lazy about carrying out this difficult job. While I can appreciate the hassle of constantly trying to monitor a child’s viewing and listening habits, that’s no excuse for throwing in the towel and calling in the government to censor what the rest of the world has access to.

By the way, let’s not forget that we long ago opened the door to government censorship when we allowed them to mandate that those silly “V-Chips” be installed in every TV set to supposedly help us censor sex and violence. Have you ever met anyone who uses them? Neither have I, but many lawmakers will use that fact as yet another reason to censor more directly. Those who were ridiculed for predicting that the V-Chip could lead to more far-reaching censorship of violence on television deserve an apology.

Finally, one wonders what all this hand-wringing over violence means for cable and satellite programs and providers. This has been a watershed year in terms of congressional attempts to assert control over content on pay TV, with several proposals flying to “do something” about indecency on cable. And now the Senate wants to regulate violence on cable too, although it is willing to carve out “premium” or pay-per-view services. Thus, The Sopranos gets a pass while Nip/Tuck and The Shield are apparently fair game for the censors. All because the Senate argues that “broadcast television, cable television and video programming are uniquely pervasive presences in the lives of all American children, and (are) readily accessible to all American children.” Again, it’s all “for the children.” But is there anyone left in government who will stand up for freedom, the First Amendment, and personal responsibility?

Adam Thierer (athierer [at] cato [dot] org) is the director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit www.cato.org/tech/tk-index.html.