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For the love of decency

"Attention, content shoppers: Bluenose special on the Senate aisle." Joe Lieberman is back, he's in charge of a committee, and he's itching to take charge of the media and the "outrageous" marketing of the "sex, violence and vulgarity" in which the 500-channel universe is purportedly awash. Forget that real violence is at its lowest levels in a quarter century or that some of that TV vulgarity is real people talking like real people in critically acclaimed, award-winning entertainment. The "sex" part may be calculated to cultivate bipartisan support for the new House bill Lieberman is pushing. More than one opponent of censorship has noted the divide among policymakers when it comes to content policing, with liberals tending to want to censor violence and conservatives targeting sex.

So, on one side, we have an FCC seemingly intent on ramping up indecency enforcement, at least until someone over there says otherwise. And, on the other, we have a reinvigorated senator out to push his brand of family values by giving the FTC the power to fine entertainment companies for marketing practices he doesn't like. For its part, the White House was making most of the right kinds of noises when it gently rebuffed Lieberman's call for its support on the bill. The administration said it did not want to take a legislative approach, although it did throw in boilerplate about trying to reduce sex and violence on TV.

Beyond the general principle of defending the First Amendment, though, and at the risk of being branded apologists by our opponents—a common tactic of censors caught in the act of censoring—we think there is a specific and compelling reason not to follow the good Senator as he tilts at this particular windmill. One of his prime targets is the marketers of R-rated movies. "We are simply saying," said Lieberman, "that, if an entertainment company voluntarily labels a product as being unsuitable for children, then they should not be able to turn around and market it in a way that directly contradicts that rating."

News flash: R-rated movies have not been labeled unsuitable for children. They have been recommended for adults but potentially suitable for some children in the company and with the permission of those adults. Ah, but that puts the responsibility on parents to decide whether they think nudity, say, is a bad thing for a child to see or a natural thing or to conclude that graphic violence might be a horrifying antidote to the sanitized violence that makes it look kind of cool and without long-term consequences. That same line of reasoning would put the responsibility on parents or caregivers to monitor children's TV watching or to decide for themselves whether to buy the toys that commercial TV makes them crave. We suspect Lieberman doesn't trust that kind of freedom.

If the government is to become the babysitter for a nation of otherwise-occupied parents, then, yes, the First Amendment will have to be itself amended to permit all kinds of government nannying. We hope it doesn't come to that, but this all-too-familiar bandwagon is headed down that road.