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When Freedom Becomes an F-Word

By Sonia Arrison
Jan 21, 2005 5:00 AM PT

While American soldiers risk their lives overseas to protect freedom, broadcasters at home are cowering in the shadows of government censors. The latest story involves Fox Network's decision to electronically blur a cartoon character's posterior for fear of being fined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The rear-exposing episode of "Family Guy" originally ran five years ago without complaint, but things are different now. The FCC has super-charged its enforcement activities, particularly since the infamous Janet Jackson breast exposť at the Super Bowl, for which CBS was fined a record US$550,000.

When Freedom Becomes an F-Word

"We have to be checking and second-guessing ourselves now," said Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman. "We have to protect our affiliates." Indeed, last October 169 Fox stations were fined $7,000 each for airing an episode of the reality show "Married by America." Apparently, government regulators disliked a scene that involved strippers, even if the goal of the show is rather traditional: to get a man and a woman hitched.

Wake-Up Call?

The total bill for the Fox network came to $1,183,000, prompting the Parent's Television Council to say, "We applaud the FCC for holding all Fox affiliates responsible for airing the filthy and indecent broadcast.... A fine of $1,183,000 should make Fox and other networks sit up and take notice."

Indeed, the networks have noticed that they have less freedom and that, in addition to answering to their customers, they must also pander to increasingly strict government censors. Freedom of thought, content, and speech is constrained in countries like Saudi Arabia or even China, but this is not the type of thing one expects in freedom-loving America. A country that prides itself on freedom of the individual now finds itself in a situation where networks preemptively censor themselves for fear of the government indecency patrol.

Some of the groups that call for government censorship aggressively argue against government control of the economic sphere. One might call them traditional conservatives. In their fuzzy logic, government is incompetent when it comes to regulating the economy but has no problem getting on top of things when it comes to the social sphere. Then there's the argument that television needs to be censored because we need to "protect the children."

Parental Responsibility

If parents want to protect their children from indecent television, they should focus their efforts on supervising what programs their children watch. Parental responsibility is something that needs to be taken seriously, because Uncle Sam doesn't make a very good parent and was never meant to fill that role.

Of course, new technologies thwart government attempts to control what the public says and sees. It is unlikely that Janet Jackson's breast will get an encore on broadcast television, but, despite federal CAN-SPAM legislation, a million exposed breasts, and much more, pop up in e-mail inboxes around the country. And shock-jocks such as Howard Stern can easily move to satellite radio, beyond the reach of FCC indecency rules.

Some commentators say America is becoming a country focused on "values," which is good if the values are the traditional American fare of freedom and responsibility. But when special interests and zealots make freedom an "f-word," the situation becomes alarming. How did this happen?

The Public's Airwaves

As FCC Chairman Michael Powell explains: "The airwaves belong to the United States government and you license use. They're the public's airwaves."

"The public" and the government are not exactly synonymous, but Mr. Powell concedes an important point.

When property doesn't fully reside in private hands, well-organized interest groups can force others to follow their lead. This is why spectrum reform is so important. If there were a private-property model for spectrum, as Nobel laureate Ronald Coase suggested many years ago, that would disarm the pressure groups who can now leverage regulators over a Fox cartoon.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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What is the most consequential impact of social media on society today?
It has opened up valuable new channels for civil discourse.
It has destroyed the meaning of "truth" and "fact."
It has made people stronger by facilitating grass roots activism.
It has deepened divisions among groups with opposing views.
It has made it easier for people to support and help each other.
It has made it easier for people to humiliate and hurt each other.