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Kerry's Patriotic Duty

If Sen. John Kerry wants to lead this nation, he must take the highest ground on protecting the First Amendment. It's under threat from lawmakers trying to impose content regulation. That's unacceptable. Kerry must speak out clearly and forcefully against proposed indecency laws—legislation that was spawned, in large part, by spineless election-year politics.

We already know where President Bush stands: squarely behind censorship. This is a chance for Kerry to draw another major difference between the current administration and a Kerry presidency.

Last week, Kerry's campaign office was still searching for a policy wonk to determine his position. Not a good sign. Conventional wisdom holds that it's political suicide to stand against the onslaught of content control for fear of being labeled pro-smut. That is the coward's refuge.

Beware what the House Commerce Committee said: The government can fine a musician, poet, or standup comic half a million dollars for saying something on TV or radio that the government doesn't like. That's not just unconstitutional, it's un-American.

"But America has spoken," chorus Congress, the FCC, and the TV industry, citing hundreds of thousands of e-mails to the FCC. Twenty years ago, that volume of complaints would be undeniable evidence of broad-based anger. Today, it is the work of an afternoon for the NRA or Parents Television Council to place an action call and wait for a massive e-mail response.

True, this issue has remarkable bipartisan backing on the Hill, perhaps unequaled in media history. Cracking down on edgy programming has always played into the "family values" mantra of conservatives. What is new is that liberals are so angered by consolidation they are willing to swallow content regulations. By tying them to deregulation, they hope to derail FCC Chairman Michael Powell's agenda. Of course, Powell himself has abetted that effort.

The vote on the indecency bill was 49-1. "I strongly believe in the First Amendment, and if I have to stand alone to defend, I will do it," said the lone dissenter, Illinois Democrat Janice Schakowsky, no fan of consolidation herself. Hers can't be the only voice in the wilderness. It's time for the Democrats' presumptive nominee to walk the walk and talk some strong First Amendment talk.