TechKnowledge No. 84

Surrogate-Parent Sam

By Adam D. Thierer
June 25, 2004

The Senate voted overwhelmingly this week to step up fines for broadcast-television and radio indecency violations. The measure authorized the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase maximum fines for naughty behavior on the airwaves from $27,500 to $275,000, a 10-fold increase. The measure passed as part of the fiscal-year 2005 defense-authorization bill.

Who could be against such a measure? Obviously no one in Congress, because the bill was a slam-dunk in both chambers. Outgoing Senator John Breaux (D., La.) was the lone dissenter in the Senate-and that was because he was angry the bill didn’t go far enough, regulating indecency on cable and satellite television too. In an age of supposedly bitter political partisanship, nothing seems to unite old enemies like an effort to get on the moral high horse and preach to the media about cleaning up their act. After all, this is “mom, baseball, and apple pie” stuff, right? Parents like me should be rejoicing that our judicious and morally upstanding leaders are taking steps to protect our children from the filth in this world.

But there is another, less popular way of looking at the issue. That is, whatever happened to personal responsibility?

I have a serious problem with calling in Uncle Sam to play the role of surrogate parent and I would hope some others out there do too. Particularly troubling to me is the fact that so many conservatives, who rightly preach the gospel of personal responsibility about most economic issues, seemingly give up on this notion when it comes to cultural issues. Art, music, and speech are fair game for the Ministry of Culture down at the FCC, but don’t let them regulate our cable rates!

But the real folly of these latest indecency fines is that they will have little real impact in ridding the world of things politicians don’t want to see or hear. That’s because Sen. Breaux was actually on to something when he cast his sole dissenting vote arguing that lawmakers need to deal with cable and satellite television as well if they want to be an effective culture cop. Indeed, with almost 90 percent of American households now voluntarily subscribing to cable or satellite television-and satellite radio now on the rise too-it doesn’t make a difference whether Congress votes to raise broadcast fines by ten times or a million times. None of this will have an effect in the realm of subscription-based “pay TV” and radio.

So when the last person in America has thrown away his old rabbit-ear television set and converted to cable or satellite TV, what is Congress going to do? Will Tony Soprano and Co. be getting their mouths washed out with soap?

But let’s get back to the regulation of broadcast TV and radio, which admittedly does still play a major role in our society and continues to be licensed by the FCC to operate “in the public interest.”

The oldest rationale for regulating over-the-air TV and radio is the one the censors still rely on today: pervasiveness. Incalculable numbers of lawmakers, regulators, and jurists have made the argument that TV and radio are so darn ubiquitous that special constraints must apply to them-constraints they would never be able to place on books or magazines, thanks to the strict First Amendment protection those media receive.

The biggest problem with this “pervasiveness rationale” is that it treats modern electronic technologies as the equivalent of invaders into our homes and lives. But TVs and radios don’t have legs and don’t storm into our homes uninvited. We put them there by choice. Once we do so, we should be prepared to assume some responsibility about how our kids use them.

Moreover, where does this “pervasiveness standard” lead us in a world of intense media competition? Beyond the 90 percent of us who have voluntarily purchased cable and satellite services, what of the Internet and cyberspace? It’s tough to imagine a more “pervasive” technology than the World Wide Web. And once it’s in everyone’s homes and offices, it will be tough to understand why we should have one standard for the Net, cable, and satellite, and another for broadcast television and radio.

So, how do we reconcile this? As traditional broadcasting dies a slow but certain death, do we start censoring “indecent” speech on cable, satellite, the Internet, and everything that follows?

In a free society, different people will have different values and tolerance levels when it comes to speech, and government should not impose the will of some on all. When it comes to minding the kids, I’ll take responsibility for teaching my own about the realities of this world, including the unsavory bits. You worry about yours. Let’s not call in the government to do the job for us.

Adam Thierer (athierer [at] cato [dot] org) is the director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. This essay originally appeared in National Review Online on June 25, 2004. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit www.cato.org/tech/tk-index.html.