TV's `Safe Haven'

HASTILY drafted federal rules mandated by Congress, particularly dealing with constitutional issues, are strong candidates for rejection by the courts.

That is one message sent last week when three federal appeals court judges in Washington overturned a Federal Communications Commission regulation on indecent television programs. The rule grew out of a congressional amendment last year to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's budget authorization bill. The amendment required the FCC to restrict the airing time for ``indecent'' programs to the hours between midnight and 6 a.m. The motive was to help keep programs unsuitable for children off the air when youngsters are most likely to watch TV.

The FCC's definition of ``indecent'' was not at issue. Rather, the judges said the First Amendment rights of adults were not sufficiently weighed against the government's ``compelling interest in the protection of children.'' One judge added that ``occasional exposure to offensive material in scheduled programming is of roughly the same order that confronts the reader browsing in a bookstore.''

The desire of lawmakers to help parents keep minors from viewing indecent programming is understandable; television's impact on shaping children's attitudes is strong. And the courts have been correct to reject 24-hour-a-day bans on indecent programming - as objectionable as it is - on First Amendment grounds. The FCC's rule, which sought to split the difference, was reasonable. Adults who wanted to see such programs could have done so, albeit at an inconvenient hour. The FCC's role as the custodian, if not the owner, of the airwaves is similar to that of the bookstore owner who, gauging community standards, still sells ``skin'' magazines but keeps them behind the counter away from minors' view.

Yet the court has spoken. For the moment, the ``safe haven'' from indecent programs will run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. instead of until midnight. Fortunately, the judges left the door open for a new rule, although they failed to provide much more than ``we'll know it when we see it'' guidance.

The first line of defense against the worst that TV has to offer remains where it should: with the tube's ``off'' switch, tripped by a determined parent's finger. But in this age of two-income and single-parent families, many parents can use a little help. It is worth the FCC's while to try again.

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