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Austin Cline

Should the American Media Eliminate Indecency?

By July 30, 2005

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Censorship appears to be a popular American pastime: every so often, some group goes bonkers over some perceived indecency or obscenity and demands that the government reign in an out-of-control media industry in order to keep kids safe from hearing, seeing, or even just thinking anything contrary to some people's values.

The Economist reports on the latest efforts to get the FCC to regulate cable and satellite television the same way it already does broadcast television — and with larger fines for every violation:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the media industry's regulator, defines indecency as language or material that describes sexual or excretory actions or organs and which is considered “offensive by contemporary community standards.” Solely for the sake of children (present in one-third of American homes), indecency is forbidden from 6am to 10pm on broadcast TV and radio. In contrast to “obscenity”—illegal all the time—indecency mostly consists of swearing, partial nudity and sexual double entendres.

[F]earing what future measures might be deployed against them, [media companies] have increasingly censored themselves. Last year several TV stations declined to air “Saving Private Ryan”, a war movie with lots of swearing. Clear Channel, a big radio firm, axed Howard Stern, a shock jock: he is going to satellite radio, free from indecency rules. Losing Mr Stern and other outspoken personalities partly explains why broadcast radio's rate of growth has slowed, says Lawrence Haverty, a fund manager at Gabelli Asset Management.

Fortunately, a few conservative groups have started to figure out that giving the government too much power to censor the media might, someday, turn around and bite them back:

Intriguingly, opposition to the censorship lobby is coming even from some in the media industry who might be expected to favour it. Even some explicitly Christian broadcasters worry that religion itself could come under attack from a future government with increased power to censor TV. “This administration is friendly to us, but a future government might head in the direction of Canada where a broadcaster can have its licence revoked if it refers negatively to homosexuality,” says Stuart Epperson, chairman of Salem Communications, a Christian radio company.

Conservatives, including religious conservatives, have just as much to fear from government censorship as everyone else — at least, they do in a liberal democracy, however much censorship may conflict with the values of such a democracy. So long as the people can continually vote in a new government, religious conservatives cannot count on the state to censor on behalf of only their values. They may not be willing to oppose censorship out of a commitment to open, pluralistic values, but opposition to censorship out of desperate self-interest is better than no opposition at all.

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