The Federal Communications Commission recently asked
Congress to hand it broad powers to regulate “excessive violence” on
TV, the way it currently restricts “indecent” speech:
broadcasters who violate the FCC’s limitations on “excessive
violence” will face crippling fines and, potentially, the
loss of their broadcast licenses. Isn’t it time to ask:
How did a country that reveres free speech end up with a government
agency that imposes continually expanding speech restrictions—and
where will those restrictions end?
Free speech means the right to express the products of the mind
(scientific conclusions, artistic creations, political views,
etc.) using whatever words or images one chooses over a medium
one can rightfully access, without interference by the government.
It means the right of a publisher to publish a controversial
novel; the right of a newspaper to run an article criticizing
the government—and the right of broadcasters to decide
what content will flow over their airwaves.
But in 1927, just as radios were becoming widely used, the government
seized control of the airwaves, declared them “public property,” and
assumed the power to regulate them in the name of the “public
interest”—an undefinable term that can be stretched
to mean anything. Thus broadcasters’ right to free speech
was cut off at the root, as the government, having irrationally
barred broadcasters from owning the airwaves they made valuable
through their technological innovation and broadcast content,
went on to dictate how those airwaves could be used.
Initially the government pledged that only “obscene” speech—materials
that “depict or describe patently offensive ‘hard
core’ sexual conduct”—would be barred from
the air. But having abandoned the principle of free speech and
established itself as the unchecked arbiter of what could be
said on the airwaves, the government was later able to ignore
its pledge and, in 1978’s FCC v. Pacifica ruling, expand
its speech restrictions to include the broader (and even more
nebulous) category of “indecent” speech. Thus, broadcasters
could be fined for anything from profanity to sexual double entendres,
to vague references to sexual acts. Now, advocates of censorship
are appealing to this precedent in order to justify regulating “excessively
violent” content as well.
Moreover, Americans had been assured that speech restrictions
would apply only to broadcasters operating on the “public
airwaves.” But now, in its quest to regulate “excessive
violence,” the FCC is insisting that its regulatory mandate
be expanded to cover subscriber-based media such as satellite
and cable TV.
If we allow this progression to continue, it is only a matter
of time before the FCC starts restricting “offensive” philosophic
or scientific views (as some religious opponents of evolution
would like). And having gutted free speech on radio and television,
what is to stop the government from censoring the Internet, books,
What made this trend toward increasing censorship possible—and
inevitable? When the FCC assumed the power to subordinate free
speech to the “public interest,” it declared, in
effect, that individuals are incompetent to judge what speech
they and their children should be exposed to, and so their judgment
must be usurped by all-wise FCC bureaucrats, who will control
the airwaves in their name. Given this disgraceful principle,
it did not matter that the FCC’s initial restrictions were
supposedly limited to speech pertaining to sex: if the government
knows what’s best for us in the realm of sexual speech
and can dictate what we watch or listen to, then there is no
reason why it should not control what ideas we should be exposed
to across the board. To reverse this destructive trend, therefore,
we must do more than resist new speech restrictions—we
must abolish existing ones and restore our commitment to the
principle of free speech.
Does this mean that parents must be forced to let their children
view programming they regard as indecent or violent? No. It is
a parent’s job, not the government’s, to decide and
control what his child watches, just as the parent is responsible
for deciding what he himself watches. If a parent determines
that a show is not appropriate for his child, he is free to change
the channel, turn off the TV, or block his child’s access
to it in some other way. His need to monitor what his child views
on TV no more justifies censoring broadcasters than his need
to vet what his child reads justifies censoring authors.
Americans face a choice: free speech or censorship. There is
no middle ground.
Don Watkins is a writer and research specialist at the Ayn Rand
Institute in Irvine, California.