Television technology has changed dramatically in the years since 1972, when comedian George Carlin first joked about the seven words you can never say on TV. The proliferation of cable television has brought those words and a slew of other vulgarities to the boob tube--and during prime time, no less. It is therefore anachronistic for the Federal Communications Commission to enforce one set of decency standards for broadcasters and another set for the cable television industry. But not only that, it’s also indecent for the government to restrict free speech, according to Independent Institute Research Editor Anthony Gregory.
“The real obscenity exists in trusting government officials, whether in robes or suits, with the authority to override our freedom of expression and speech,” Gregory writes in a commentary for the Huffington Post. The piece was prompted by last week’s oral arguments in FCC v. Fox, a Supreme Court case that originated from the agency’s imposition of fines against Fox Television Stations for broadcasting obscenities dropped by Cher and Bono during televised awards programs. The manner in which federal officials acquired legal authority over the airwaves illustrates the pitfalls of treating a resource as common property, Gregory explains. And the result disincentivizes private producers to set language protocols and police themselves.
The Federal Radio Act of 1927 claimed that the airwaves are “common property,” worthy of federal regulation “in the public interest.” But private interests played an important part—perhaps the decisive role—in the establishment of regulations that followed. This outcome could have been predicted. In the 1920s Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover held conferences on broadcasting regulations to solicit input from industry leaders. “The top industrialists tended to favor more federal control to prevent competitors from jumping on the radio at increasingly lower overhead costs,” writes Gregory. In the late 1940s, the same anti-competitive ethos was applied to the budding television industry. The artificial scarcity of broadcast airwaves has long served as a rationale of subsequent government regulation of television and radio stations and networks—and an excuse to help restrict competition in favor of entrenched special interests. At root, however, the greatest problem with federal restrictions on the television and radio industries (and on mass communication in general) is that they are an affront to liberty, and an unconstitutional one at that.
The Indecency of the FCC, by Anthony Gregory (Huffington Post, 1/11/12)