EVERYONE knows that many parents have a tough time controlling what their children watch on television. So why shouldn't the government lend a hand by banning what the Federal Communications Commission loosely calls ``indecent'' programming? Because efforts to restrict what many might see as objectionable broadcast material too easily infringes on the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. In striking down an FCC ruling relegating indecent material to a midnight-to-6 slot, a federal appeals court panel recognized this. The FCC had the authority to protect young viewers, the judges said, but it had to be more precise in its methods.
To begin with, they pointed out, content labeled ``indecent,'' as opposed to ``obscene,'' comes under the First Amendment's wing. The former can include material offensive to some viewers but praiseworthy to others. What about shows like public television's ``I, Claudius'' series, that dealt with some of the Romans' least savory tendencies? ``Obscene,'' by contrast, denotes a clearly prurient appeal.
Beyond that, the court pointed out that the regulators should define the age group they hoped to protect. Keeping ``indecent'' programming off the air until after midnight does not specifically protect most younger children, long asleep by then, and may infringe unnecessarily on the First Amendment rights of adult viewers. The 10 p.m. rule, in effect until 1987, created a credible ``safe haven'' for young viewers.
Interestingly, the party challenging the FCC's indecency rule was Action for Children's Television, the Cambridge, Mass.-based group that has long fought for better children's programming. ACT's position, essentially, is that government censorship is not the way to upgrade what children view.
None of this excuses much of the truly objectionable programming that can slip in under the ``indecent'' heading. We'd prefer, certainly, that viewers switch off all such shows. We'd also urge that those intent on making television a more positive experience for children emphasize viewer support of good programming, as well as avoiding the bad. Exciting and progressive alternatives to the current fare are badly needed.
And when it comes to what children should be allowed to watch - at any hour - the front line of defense has to be the good taste and common sense of sensitive parents. This is doubly true at a time when cable TV is multiplying the viewing options of so many families. The FCC rules mentioned apply only to over-the-air broadcasts, not cable.
Government, for its part, can be a reasonable ally of parents, restricting programs potentially harmful to children to a later time slot - but not acting as censor over what all viewers may watch.