April 11, 2013 by David K. Sutton
FCC To Consider Relaxing ‘Indecency’ Standards
The Federal Communications Commission issued a public notice on Monday, April 1st, asking for public feedback on a proposal to relax so-called indecency standards. Family groups like the Christian conservative group, American Family Association (AFA), have stretched the facts in response. According to the AFA, “if enacted, the new FCC policy would allow network television and local radio stations to air the f-word, the s-word, and to allow programs to show frontal female nudity, even during hours when they know children will be watching and listening.”
Last year the Supreme Court overturned two separate FCC fines against broadcast networks. The FCC is not so much looking to make wholesale changes, but instead they want to conform to these rulings by relaxing the standards by which networks are fined for indecent content. That’s not the same thing as saying networks will have free license to air anything they want. And even if they did, that doesn’t mean they would. Just look at the hundreds of cable networks without a trace of the “f-word” or “s-word” and they are not subject to any government imposed indecency standards.
So this does pose an interesting question. — Why should broadcast networks be subject to indecency standards? Isn’t it a clear violation of free speech rights?
As for the AFA and other conservative family groups who argue in favor of indecency standards, I think they are confused. They are conflating things they find offensive with things that should be against the law or otherwise restricted by government. These are two things which should remain separate. Government should not be in the business of policing morality.
FCC indecency restrictions are an unambiguous violation of the First Amendment. How can one argue that government has the right to tell people what they can say just because it was communicated over public airwaves? Because broadcast networks operate over public airwaves, it is even more reason this form of censorship is unconstitutional.
One argument conservative family groups might put forth is — the FCC regulates the public airwaves — therefore it’s within their power to enforce what’s best (or the least harmful) to the general public, particularly children. But who gets to decide what is decent? It’s really just someone’s opinion. That’s why it’s such a clear violation of free speech. Yes, the broadcast networks use public airwaves regulated by the government, and that’s why it is an abridgment of free speech rights for the FCC to enforce indecency standards.
A second argument these groups might use is — rights are not absolute — therefore the FCC can impose indecency standards to shield parents and children from offensive material. But isn’t this really just a government mandated guard against a potentially embarrassing situation for parents? And that is why they would be wrong to apply an anti-absolutist rights argument. Yes, rights do end at the point where they would cause undue harm to someone else’s rights or person, but it would be a reach to say that an increase of profanity and nudity broadcast over public airwaves results in a diminishing of anyone’s rights.
We cannot allow “embarrassment” and “offense” to curtail free speech rights.