FCC shouldn’t regulate TV violence

For 87 years, the ACLU has fought to preserve and protect free speech and the First Amendment. Oftentimes this has meant defending a cast of unsavory characters, from anti-Semites to tasteless performers. And yet, we do it proudly and with the solid understanding that America is stronger when government stays out of the censorship business. The last thing this government or any government should do is try to control what Americans do in the privacy of their own homes.

The Federal Communications Commission recently came out with a report that urges Congress to regulate violence on television. The ACLU calls on Congress to reject any proposals that would allow the FCC to regulate TV violence.

ACLU members strongly believe that the government should not replace parents as decision-makers in America’s living rooms. There are some things the government does well, but deciding what is aired, and when, on television 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. We believe that a compelling case has been made for media literacy education. 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 encouraging government to replace America’s parents as the primary decision-makers in their own homes. Government should not parent the parents.

Our concern is that imposing standards for television violence 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 control the upbringing of their children.

Parents play a central role in the lives of their children, and parents today have unprecedented capability to control 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 that they do not want in their homes.
Additionally, a multitude of websites rate television shows, permitting parents to choose one that suits their individual taste and use those ratings to determine what their children watch. Both the Parents Television Council and Common Sense Media have easy-to-use sites.

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 videogames 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 decision-makers in their children’s lives.

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’.

Fredrickson is director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office.