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Protecting our children. Society should not use censorship to make ideas safe

By CURTIS J. SITOMER / May 7, 1987



THERE are a lot of ways we can make society safer for our children. A top priority would be to lessen the danger of nuclear attack; another is to clean up the environment; a third might involve the harnessing of violent crime.

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These are worthy, but challenging, pursuits.

Even more difficult is the task of protecting children from disgusting and demoralizing suggestions or ideas.

A questionable approach is to stifle speech, ban certain words, and censor communications outlets.

Much of the negative reaction to the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) edict - tightening controls on bawdy or explicit radio talk - was not triggered by a public that embraces pornography or obscenity. It was principally a reaction to Big Brotherism - government intrusion into traditionally private areas.

So-called ``sick'' humor, sexual innuendoes, and use of dirty words, which have characterized certain ``shock jock'' radio shows across the nation are offen sive to many people. Few would even find them amusing.

Parents should be alert to such programming with a view toward monitoring their offsprings' listening habits. To be practical, however, adults are not always able to control the situation. And government does have some moral responsibility toward society - particularly with respect to children.

But how far should this go? Historically, the United States Supreme Court has treaded lightly in this area - cautious not to trample free speech in its efforts to protect the public against its own worst instincts.

The justices, however, have been less tolerant of child pornography and purient materials designed to appeal to youngsters than they have of similar material presented to an adult audience.

For example, with young people in mind, the court banned specific dirty words from the airwaves. And in so doing, it indicated that, in such situations, radiocasters have only limited First Amendment rights.

Until recently, FCC guidelines required only that broadcasters warn listeners of possible objectional program content, including offensive language. It specifically mandated that ``adult'' programming be aired after 10 p.m. when fewer children would be likely to tune in.

As of mid-April, however, the commission announced a broad crackdown on the use of ``sexual or excretory'' terms on the air, particularly at times when children may be listening.

Further, the FCC put all broadcasters on notice that future transmissions of obscene or indecent materials could result in stiff penalties, including fines or even removal of licenses.

This action triggered cries of ``censorship'' from civil libertarians and others. Some charge that the FCC now has substituted vagueness for clarity and put free speech in jeopardy.

The result will depend on how the commission implements its warnings to broadcasters and whether the latter move toward effective self-regulation.

Cleaning up one's own act is usually the best solution. Censorship is probably the worst.

A similar situation arose last summer when the US attorney general called for a national assault on pornography. Among 92 recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission were those that would band together citizens' ``watch groups'' to file complaints, put pressure on local prosecutors, monitor judges, and, if necessary, boycott merchants selling pornographic material.

The panel focused on obscene materials relating to children or pitched toward youth.

Although many applauded the crackdown, some were concerned that illegal censorship could result and First Amendment rights would be curtailed. So far, little action has resulted and fears of government oppression have not been realized.

Censorship in the classroom is also on the front burner today. Judicial edicts in Tennessee and Alabama have so far succeeded in restricting or banning certain textbooks considered offensive by parents. This thrust is coming mainly from the religious right.

People for the American Way, a grass-roots lobby that staunchly defends speech freedoms, says that classroom book censorship is increasing across the US at a rate of 35 percent annually.

Meanwhile, the right of school authorities to restrict the content of student publications now is heading for the Supreme Court. A St. Louis, Mo., case raises the question of whether the First Amendment covers student journalists writing for a high school newspaper in the same way it protects adults.

It is unfortunate that this situation could not be resolved by parents, school authorities, and the young people themselves without resorting to government, or court, adjudication.

Muzzling speech is not the best way to protect adults - or children - from the seamy side of society.

A Thursday column