When is a cuss word broadcast over television or radio indecent? At a live awards show where an award recipient uses a profanity? During a war movie? In a blues documentary where expletives fly?
If you said all three were indecent, you would be wrong.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is America's indecency police, but its vague and confusing criteria for what constitutes "indecency" leave everyone in the dark.
At the 2003 Golden Globe Awards, where rock star Bono exuberantly received his award, the FCC initially said it wasn't indecent, then, under pressure from Congress, said it was.
Shortly thereafter, several stations refused to air the war movie "Saving Private Ryan" because of its multiple usage of the same expletive Bono used. When a complaint was made to the FCC, it declared the drama was not indecent.
At about the same time, PBS aired "The Blues: Godfathers and Sons," a documentary whose real-life blues players used some profanity. The FCC decided it was indecent.
Confused? So are the broadcasters. The government should not be making these decisions in the first place. Parents should.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia introduced legislation in late July that has already passed the Senate Energy and Commerce committee to regulate indecency on television. And there is talk of a similar bill coming soon to regulate television violence.
Congress should reject any proposals that would allow the FCC to regulate what the public sees on television.
Members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) strongly believe that the government should not replace parents as decisionmakers in America's living rooms. There are some things the government does well, but deciding what is aired on television, and when, is not one of them.
Parents already have many tools to protect their children, including blocking programs and channels, changing the channel, or (my personal favorite) turning off the television.
The ACLU is not blind to the issue at hand. We can see why some parents are upset about what they see on television. But the answer lies in teaching those parents how they can limit what their children watch – not censorship. Congress may choose to play a role in educating parents on the dangers of overexposure to media. But government focus should then be on providing those educational opportunities – not on replacing parents as the primary decisionmakers in their own homes. Government should not parent the parents.
Our concern is that imposing standards for television programming would be unconstitutional and damage important values that define America: the right to a free and open media, the right to free speech, and the right of parents to decide the upbringing of their children.
Parents today have unprecedented control over what comes into their homes and what media their children consume.
The most basic and user-friendly tool every parent has against unwanted media content is the ability to turn the television off, or to establish rules about where and when children may watch TV. Recent technology in digital boxes permits blocking by rating, channel, title, and even, in some systems, program description. Cable subscribers who do not have set-top boxes can simply ask their cable companies to block specific channels.
Additionally, a multitude of websites rate television shows, permitting parents to choose ones that suit their taste and to determine what their children watch. Both the Parents Television Council and Common Sense Media have easy-to-use websites.
The ACLU is not opposed to solutions that parents and industry come up with. What concerns us is when Uncle Sam gets involved. There is a long history of using the media as a scapegoat for society's problems. At one time or another, books, movies, opera, jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, heavy metal and rap music, comic books, and video games have all been accused of causing antisocial or violent behavior among minors and adults.
Since not all portrayals of violence are bad, the government would have insurmountable difficulty defining what is "good" violence and "bad" violence. Even those who research this issue use inconsistent definitions of violence. If the researchers cannot concur on an objective definition, then will any regulations provide truly objective results?
Parents have the tools they need to protect their children. If the government steps in and regulates the content of television shows or relegates certain shows to a late-night or early-morning hour, it steps over the line and becomes the Federal Babysitting Agency – replacing parents as the ultimate decisionmakers.
The power to control the upbringing of children, including what they watch, should remain in the most capable, effective, and constitutional hands possible: the parents.
• Caroline Fredrickson is director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office. This article first appeared in the Buffalo News.