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Why government should not police TV violence and indecency

Parents already have many tools to protect their children, including blocking programs, changing the channel, or simply turning the TV off.

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When is a cuss word broadcast over television or radio indecent? At a live awards show where an award recipient uses a profanity? During a war movie? In a blues documentary where expletives fly?

If you said all three were indecent, you would be wrong.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is America's indecency police, but its vague and confusing criteria for what constitutes "indecency" leave everyone in the dark.

At the 2003 Golden Globe Awards, where rock star Bono exuberantly received his award, the FCC initially said it wasn't indecent, then, under pressure from Congress, said it was.

Shortly thereafter, several stations refused to air the war movie "Saving Private Ryan" because of its multiple usage of the same expletive Bono used. When a complaint was made to the FCC, it declared the drama was not indecent.

At about the same time, PBS aired "The Blues: Godfathers and Sons," a documentary whose real-life blues players used some profanity. The FCC decided it was indecent.

Confused? So are the broadcasters. The government should not be making these decisions in the first place. Parents should.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia introduced legislation in late July that has already passed the Senate Energy and Commerce committee to regulate indecency on television. And there is talk of a similar bill coming soon to regulate television violence.

Congress should reject any proposals that would allow the FCC to regulate what the public sees on television.

Members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) strongly believe that the government should not replace parents as decisionmakers in America's living rooms. There are some things the government does well, but deciding what is aired on television, and when, is not one of them.

Parents already have many tools to protect their children, including blocking programs and channels, changing the channel, or (my personal favorite) turning off the television.

The ACLU is not blind to the issue at hand. We can see why some parents are upset about what they see on television. But the answer lies in teaching those parents how they can limit what their children watch – not censorship. Congress may choose to play a role in educating parents on the dangers of overexposure to media. But government focus should then be on providing those educational opportunities – not on replacing parents as the primary decisionmakers in their own homes. Government should not parent the parents.

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