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Decency and cable TV

Dallas demands certain standards of decency for cable television. Why shouldn't North Ogden, Utah?

The legalities of the question are tangled. But many Americans must feel they are in the same room with the doughty Utahans who are fighting the huge cable industry to keep what they regard as filth out of their homes.

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Ironically, amid today's cries of new federalism, pending Washington legislation would actually make it more difficult for localities - and the larger jurisdictions of states - to have a say in cable regulation. Some of the proposals would limit or even eliminate the present state and local authority on matters of franchising and access.

The whole issue takes on extra importance in the light of last week's pioneering decision by the Federal Communications Commission. It gave the go-ahead for a system to broadcast TV directly from a satellite to individual homes. Such a service, requiring a ''dish'' antenna rather than cable connections, could eventually provide great competition to cable and offer viewers yet more channels. And, the Utahans might say, more opportunities to send obscenity into American homes.

One legal issue in the North Ogden case has to do with communities enacting decency statutes for cable TV stricter than state and local obscenity laws. Do such statutes violate the First Amendment's guarantee of free expression? Perhaps, as one Utah lawyer suggests, the final answer will have to come from the Supreme Court.

The last thing that America should want is invasion of the First Amendment. There should be no unconstitutional government censorship of the free flow of ideas and information. There should be every government encouragement to broad and diverse public access to the use of broadcast media.

Courts have repeatedly found obscenity not to be protected by the Constitution. But control of it, whether public or private, should never become an excuse or cover for curbing legitimate expression.

It was concern about such a possibility that fed successful opposition to last year's proposed New York State legislation to give censorship powers to corporate cable operators. They wanted authority to censor obscenity and other matters on the ''public access'' channels they are required to provide. Opponents felt the language was so broad as to open the door to the overall control of public-access program content that is denied now.

Note the paradox of cable operators asking for their own control of indecency in New York while cable operators are now opposing the Utah citizens' efforts to control indecency. In New York, indeed, they are seeking legislation to escape the requirement to provide public access as well as other regulatory control.

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More in the public interest is other proposed New York cable legislation. It would require cable operators to furnish lock boxes to customers who request them. These might help to address one of the Utahans' concerns - keeping objectionable material from children at least. The bill would also transfer the liability for observing obscenity laws from the operator that provides the technical apparatus to the producer who puts on the show.

The latter provision would be in line with the move toward making cable operators common carriers, resisting the tendency of some to assume more and more control of the content as well as means of communication.

This provision would also fix responsibility where its source should be. Whether on public-access channels or commercial networks, the producers of programs have the prime opportunity to keep them decent - and should at least share the consequences with operators when they are not.

Though the FCC is regulating less and less in many ways, it still has authority to enforce standards on ''free'' TV that it does not have over cable TV. Government regulation of the airwaves has long been supported on the grounds that the airwaves belong to the public; that, unlike printing presses, they are scarce resources used by broadcasters as privileged trustees of the public.

Such reasoning might not seem to apply now that cable offers the possibility of virtually limitless channels. But it may be that a Supreme Court case of 1978 has a bearing in that it brought up a new argument. The question was whether the FCC could ban the so-called ''seven dirty words'' from the radio. The court upheld the FCC not on the grounds of scarce airwaves but on the grounds of the ''uniquely pervasive presence'' of the broadcast media in the lives of all Americans. The individual's right to be let alone in the privacy of home was said to outweigh the First Amendment rights of the intruder.

Television promises or threatens to become even more pervasive with the forthcoming satellite system added to cable and ''regular'' TV. Could this argument be invoked by the Utahans? Certainly it ought to be considered by state and local lawmakers everywhere as they set up cable-TV standards.

Yet there remains the free marketplace dimension of cable. It requires a customer to make a payment, have a set connected up, and turn the switch before anything, offensive or sublime, enters the house.

The choice becomes this customer's - so long as cable TV provides enough diversity and public access to offer a choice. Adults' choices and basis for choosing become examples for the children of the house.

It is essential to have the legal means of maintaining decent standards pursued to the fullest extent. But, whatever the legal outcome, the nation's standards will finally be determined by those who turn the switch.

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