An Indecent Act

Bernie Sanders

On Feb­ru­ary 16, the House passed the Broad­cast Decen­cy Enforce­ment Act of 2005 (H.R. 310) by a vote of 389 to 38. This leg­is­la­tion would impose vast­ly high­er fines — up to $500,000 — on broad­cast­ers who air so-called inde­cent material.

Apparently a lot of people in Congress do not believe that Americans should have the "freedom" to make the choice about what they listen to on the radio or watch on TV.

What it doesn’t do is pro­vide any relief from the vague stan­dard of inde­cen­cy that the Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion can arbi­trar­i­ly apply. That means broad­cast­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly small broad­cast­ers, will have no choice but to engage in a very dan­ger­ous cycle of self-cen­sor­ship to avoid the threat of a fine that could dri­ve some of them into bankruptcy.

If this leg­is­la­tion is enact­ed, the real vic­tim will be free expres­sion and Amer­i­cans’ First Amend­ment rights. In a state­ment I entered into the Con­gres­sion­al Record, John King, pres­i­dent of Ver­mont Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion, said, in part:

While many peo­ple assume the new sanc­tions [of H.R. 310] are aimed at com­mer­cial broad­cast­ers, pub­lic broad­cast­ers are feel­ing the effects every day. Pub­lic television’s edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram­ming for chil­dren has always pro­vid­ed a safe haven. The same pub­lic tele­vi­sion sta­tions that take such care of their young view­ers also respect the intel­li­gence and dis­cre­tion of their adult view­ers to make the best view­ing choic­es them­selves. … While there have always been pro­hi­bi­tions against gra­tu­itous inde­cen­cy, the FCC always took con­text into account. Now, it seems that con­text is no longer con­sid­ered. Much as we might like to invoke our First Amend­ment rights, we dare not risk the large fine that could come with a sin­gle violation.

I am increas­ing­ly alarmed by the cul­ture of cen­sor­ship that is devel­op­ing in this coun­try. This cen­sor­ship is being con­duct­ed by the cor­po­ra­tions that own our increas­ing­ly con­sol­i­dat­ed, less diverse media. And it is being done by the gov­ern­ment. The result is an insid­i­ous chill on free expres­sion on our airwaves.

I am not a con­ser­v­a­tive. But on this issue I find myself in strong agree­ment with Adam Thier­er, the direc­tor of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions stud­ies at the Cato Insti­tute — a very con­ser­v­a­tive think tank. He puts forth a com­mon­sense, pro-free­dom position: 

Cen­sor­ship on an individual/​parental lev­el is a fun­da­men­tal part of being a good par­ent. But cen­sor­ship at a gov­ern­ment lev­el is an entire­ly dif­fer­ent mat­ter because it means a small hand­ful of indi­vid­u­als get to decide what the whole nation is per­mit­ted to see, hear or think. I’ve always been par­tic­u­lar­ly trou­bled by the fact that so many con­ser­v­a­tives, who right­ly preach the gospel of per­son­al and parental respon­si­bil­i­ty about most eco­nom­ic issues, seem­ing­ly give up on this notion when it comes to cul­tur­al issues.

We have got to stand firm­ly in oppo­si­tion to the specter of cen­sor­ship grow­ing in Amer­i­ca. Here are some exam­ples of increased cen­sor­ship on the airwaves: 

  • In Jan­u­ary 2004, CBS refused to air a polit­i­cal adver­tise­ment dur­ing the Super Bowl by MoveOn​.org that was crit­i­cal of Pres­i­dent Bush’s role in cre­at­ing the fed­er­al deficit. 
  • In Novem­ber 2004, 66 ABC affil­i­ates refused to air the World War II movie Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan for fear that they would be fined for air­ing pro­gram­ming con­tain­ing pro­fan­i­ty and graph­ic vio­lence, even though ABC had aired the uncut movie in pre­vi­ous years. This, iron­i­cal­ly, was a movie that showed the unbe­liev­able sac­ri­fices that Amer­i­can sol­diers made on D‑Day fight­ing for free­dom against Hitler, but ABC affil­i­ates around the coun­try didn’t feel free to show it.
  • In Novem­ber 2004, CBS and NBC refused to run a 30-sec­ond ad from the Unit­ed Church of Christ because it sug­gest­ed that gay cou­ples were wel­come to their church. The net­works felt that it was too con­tro­ver­sial” to air. 
  • In Jan­u­ary, many PBS sta­tions refused to air an episode of the children’s show Post­cards with Buster” after Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Mar­garet Spellings object­ed to the show’s con­tent, which includ­ed Buster, an 8‑year-old bun­ny rab­bit, learn­ing how to make maple syrup from a fam­i­ly with two moth­ers in Vermont.
  • An episode of PBS’ Antiques Road­show” that includ­ed appraisal of an antique nude lith­o­graph was edit­ed so as not to offend.

A lot of peo­ple in Con­gress talk about free­dom, but appar­ent­ly they do not believe that Amer­i­cans should have the free­dom” to make the choice about what they lis­ten to on radio or watch on TV. There are a lot of peo­ple in Con­gress who talk about the intru­sive role of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors,” but today they want gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors to tell radio and TV sta­tions what they can air. That is wrong. Enact­ing the Broad­cast Decen­cy Enforce­ment Act of 2005 will make Amer­i­ca a less free society.

What Amer­i­ca is about is not nec­es­sar­i­ly lik­ing what some­one has to say, but defend­ing their right to say it. Today, it is Janet Jackson’s wardrobe mal­func­tion or Howard Stern’s vul­gar­i­ty. What will it be tomorrow?

Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) was elect­ed to the U.S. Sen­ate in 2006 after serv­ing 16 years in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. He is the longest serv­ing inde­pen­dent mem­ber of Con­gress in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Elect­ed May­or of Burling­ton, Vt., by 10 votes in 1981, he served four terms. Before his 1990 elec­tion as Ver­mon­t’s at-large mem­ber in Con­gress, Sanders lec­tured at the John F. Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment at Har­vard and at Hamil­ton Col­lege in upstate New York. Read more at his web­site.
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