TV Violence and Free Speech

THE issue of television violence and its deleterious effects on children, in the news again, is illumined by a recent paper by Sissela Bok, published by the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

As her title - ``TV Violence, Children, and the Press: Eight Rationales Inhibiting Public Policy Debates'' - suggests, Bok is concerned about a paucity of ideas.

Polling data indicate high levels of concern over the amount of murder and mayhem young people are exposed to by the little screen in the living room: Almost 4 out of 5 Americans believe violence in television programs directly contributes to the amount of violence in society, according to one survey reported on by the Los Angeles Times. But after mentioning ``the contrast between high levels of public concern and weak public policy debates,'' Bok notes, ``Past commissions and panels of experts, even when appointed in the wake of great public concern about violence in society and on TV, have been short on policy proposals. They have tended, after careful research and documentation, to bring forth only the feeblest suggestions for dealing with the risks that they have so amply documented.''

Bok identifies eight ``rationales,'' or rationalizations, that have short-circuited the debate on television violence: America is a naturally violent society and always will be; television violence is not the most important factor in societal violence anyway; causality hasn't been firmly established; television only mirrors the real world; we can't really define ``violence''; it's too late to act since television is so pervasive now; parents, not broadcasters, should control what children watch; and any public policy to decrease TV violence equals censorship.

To this last point, Bok counters that an absolutist First Amendment position on television violence leads to what she calls ``premature closure'' of the debate on the issue, and that itself is a free speech issue. Yes, of course there are First Amendment questions involved here, she says, in effect; but that can't be our only concern.

The public discussion of television violence and how it may inure children to sufferings of others fits into a larger landscape of rights vs. responsibilities questions. It is easier for the state to guarantee rights, such as freedom of expression, than to foster responsibilities, such as the need to consider what is being fed into public consciousness via television.

Some will counter that censorship must be resisted in a free society; in this they may confuse self-restraint with censorship.

Others will point out that, more fundamentally, they find no constitutional requirement for responsibility. In this they are, strictly speaking, correct. But the life of a society must consist of more than individuals pursuing their own (potentially conflicting) rights to the maximum. The Constitution has to be made to work, in part by the leadership of the community (not the same thing as the state, of course), relying largely on the force of moral suasion.

In her evident desire to see the debate on television violence avoid ``premature closure,'' Bok is trying to ensure that public concerns about violence, on television and in our lives, are articulated so as to lead to beneficial action and connect policy discussions with real people's lives.

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