Parents who want government help to protect their kids from vulgarity may also want to keep tabs on the Federal Communications Commission.
An appeals court has just thrown out FCC regulations that bar the use of “fleeting expletives” on radio and television, saying the rules were too vague and inhibit free speech. The agency will decide soon whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.
It should, simply because of an ongoing need to find a constitutional balance between parental rights and society’s right to free speech. The rising assault of indecency in digital media, especially with more Internet and mobile devices, demands that all levels of government – the FCC, courts, and Congress – help parents.
In a 1978 ruling on FCC control of broadcast media, the high court recognized that one’s home “is the one place where people ordinarily have the right not to be assaulted by uninvited and offensive sights and sounds.” The court also recognized a governmental role to regulate “otherwise protected” speech in the interest of parental authority.
The FCC’s authority beyond TV and radio broadcasting is shaky. And parents do have many tools, such as the V-chip or software safeguards, to censor or monitor what children hear or watch. Nonetheless, both the agency and the courts must recognize mounting evidence of harm done to children by verbal and visual depictions of sexual and bodily functions. A Rand Corporation study, for instance, tracked 700 kids, ages 12 through 17, for three years and found a link between sexual content on TV and higher teenage pregnancy rates.
This recent court decision on “fleeting expletives” was legally grounded in two centuries of assaults on free speech. But courts also need to recognize the real-world evidence of the harm done to vulnerable children by media creators who constantly push the boundaries of social acceptance.