Surrogate‐​Parent Sam

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

Who could be against such a measure? Obviously no one inCongress, because the bill was a slam-dunk in both chambers.Outgoing Senator John Breaux (D., La.) was the lone dissenter inthe Senate-and that was because he was angry the bill didn't go farenough, regulating indecency on cable and satellite television too.In an age of supposedly bitter political partisanship, nothingseems to unite old enemies like an effort to get on the moral highhorse and preach to the media about cleaning up their act. Afterall, this is "mom, baseball, and apple pie" stuff, right? Parentslike me should be rejoicing that our judicious and morallyupstanding leaders are taking steps to protect our children fromthe 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 therole of surrogate parent and I would hope some others out there dotoo. Particularly troubling to me is the fact that so manyconservatives, who rightly preach the gospel of personalresponsibility about most economic issues, seemingly give up onthis notion when it comes to cultural issues. Art, music, andspeech 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 theywill have little real impact in ridding the world of thingspoliticians don't want to see or hear. That's because Sen. Breauxwas actually on to something when he cast his sole dissenting votearguing that lawmakers need to deal with cable and satellitetelevision as well if they want to be an effective culture cop.Indeed, with almost 90 percent of American households nowvoluntarily subscribing to cable or satellite television-andsatellite radio now on the rise too-it doesn't make a differencewhether Congress votes to raise broadcast fines by ten times or amillion times. None of this will have an effect in the realm ofsubscription-based "pay TV" and radio.

So when the last person in America has thrown away his oldrabbit-ear television set and converted to cable or satellite TV,what is Congress going to do? Will Tony Soprano and Co. be gettingtheir 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 andcontinues to be licensed by the FCC to operate "in the publicinterest."

The oldest rationale for regulating over-the-air TV and radio isthe one the censors still rely on today: pervasiveness.Incalculable numbers of lawmakers, regulators, and jurists havemade the argument that TV and radio are so darn ubiquitous thatspecial constraints must apply to them-constraints they would neverbe able to place on books or magazines, thanks to the strict FirstAmendment protection those media receive.

The biggest problem with this "pervasiveness rationale" is thatit treats modern electronic technologies as the equivalent ofinvaders into our homes and lives. But TVs and radios don't havelegs and don't storm into our homes uninvited. We put them there bychoice. Once we do so, we should be prepared to assume someresponsibility about how our kids use them.

Moreover, where does this "pervasiveness standard" lead us in aworld of intense media competition? Beyond the 90 percent of us whohave voluntarily purchased cable and satellite services, what ofthe Internet and cyberspace? It's tough to imagine a more"pervasive" technology than the World Wide Web. And once it's ineveryone's homes and offices, it will be tough to understand why weshould have one standard for the Net, cable, and satellite, andanother for broadcast television and radio.

So, how do we reconcile this? As traditional broadcasting dies aslow but certain death, do we start censoring "indecent" speech oncable, satellite, the Internet, and everything that follows?

In a free society, different people will have different valuesand tolerance levels when it comes to speech, and government shouldnot impose the will of some on all. When it comes to minding thekids, I'll take responsibility for teaching my own about therealities of this world, including the unsavory bits. You worryabout yours. Let's not call in the government to do the job forus.