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Support, With an Asterisk

In the children's game called Telephone, a word or phrase whispered into an ear at one end of a line often comes out the other end with results injurious to the original meaning. I fear that may have happened in my exchange with Broadcasting & Cable, leading to your editorial “No 'Amen' for House Bill” (2/28, page 52).

But let's begin with our common ground. NRB shares B&C's concern over government regulation of content. As George Washington observed, “government is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” And as history amply demonstrates, restrictions on freedom of expression often begin by targeting religious communication. In short, religious broadcasters have a lot at risk in this debate.

Having said that, we do not share the extent of B&C's concern over pending legislation aimed at strengthening penalties for indecency violations. While the FCC has been decidedly uneven, and perhaps even unclear, in its enforcement of indecency standards, the standards themselves are well-rooted in law, jurisprudence and public policy. The Communications Act, which codifies indecency restrictions, dates back to 1934. And the FCC standards for indecency are well-specified and have been upheld all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court (FCC v. Pacifica Foundation).

While we must defend our First Amendment freedoms, we must also acknowledge that our free-speech rights are not absolute. One cannot, for example, shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, because of the risk of injury from an ensuing panic. One cannot commit treason by communicating national-security information to hostile nations and then claim First Amendment freedoms. Neither can one commit libel or slander and justify such damaging communications by claiming constitutional protection.

Regarding matters of indecency, the U.S. Supreme Court has also carved out an exception to First Amendment concerns because of the very real threat to the welfare of our nation's children. For this reason, while we must tread very lightly on this subject, there are certain standards respecting what children should not have to see (or hear) that we as a people hold in common. Does this restrict our creative freedom from time to time? Perhaps, but that is a small price to pay to protect children who are unsophisticated consumers of electronic media and lack the cognitive ability to deal with indecency.

In summary, NRB still views government involvement in dealing with indecency as necessary, as long as the enabling legislation is carefully crafted. We remain supportive of the efforts of both Rep. Fred Upton and Sen. Sam Brownback to that end. We continue to believe the best approach is to strengthen the penalties and leave it at that. We will not, however, withhold our support from a good-faith, bipartisan effort to protect children from indecent programming.