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Monday, April 22, 2024

Steal This Column

Since this country’s inception, the ability to state one’s views without fear of persecution from the government has been essential to the formation of a free and democratic society. With the exception of a few blemishes, (see the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798) politicians have been wise enough not to tinker with the First Amendment, leaving citizens free to speak their minds and express their opinion publicly.

But in our modern world, full of rapid forms of communication and information transfer, will the current trend of heavy-handed government regulation eventually find its way into the realm of free speech?

The answer to this question could potentially come with the Supreme Court’s decision on the matter of The Federal Communications Commission and United States of America v. FOX Television Station, Inc. The case comes as a reaction to FOX’s broadcast of the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards, in which Cher and Nicole Richie dropped uncensoredF-bombsduring their respective broadcasts.

Obviously, the Supreme Court doesn’t get called in to deal with every case of celebrity indecency, so there is clearly more at stake here than just a slap on the wrist for FOX Television. As baffling as it may be to imagine that Cher and Nicole Richie have possibly secured a brief footnote in American history through a complete disregard for social tact, it may very well be the case.

The fundamental, and potentially historical, debate focuses on whether or not the FCC can arbitrarily define an isolated use of expletive language asobscene, indecent, or profaneunder federal law. In other words, does the FCC have the constitutional power to interpret the use of a handful of words loosely deemedinappropriateby the government as an illegal and punishable act?

Some refuse to believe that FCC v. FOX Television Station will have groundbreaking implications regarding the state of free speech in this country, but unfortunately, it is not the only effort being made by the government to force censorship and regulation down the throats of the American media.

Over the last year, there has been talk on Capital Hill about reinstating the failed FCC Fairness Doctrine, which required media broadcaster to present both sides of controversial political issues in a manner that is honest and balanced. Such a measure would undoubtedly have a devastating effect on media outlets such as talk radio, which usually focus on giving a politically biased perspective on the issues. However, any notion of honesty or balance complete vanishes when one realizes that a massive conservative presence in talk radio may be responsible for the rising support of the Fairness Doctrine by key Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi or John Kerry.

Some proponents of the Fairness Doctrine claim that it has nothing to do with censorship, however, this could not be farther from the truth. Government regulation of the media with the hopes of creatingfairness and equalityis not simply censuring dissenting points of view, but eliminating the rights of citizens to express any opinion at all. How can magazines, broadcasting stations or newsletters openly criticize the government while, at the same time, being forced to provide support for the opposition?

It appears as if the only true beneficiaries of increased government censorship and regulation would be the elected officials who avoid media criticism and the institutions that are responsible for enforcing such measures. Hopefully, American citizens will soon realize that government officials mandating decency and fairness are just as stifling to free speech as state controlled press, and quite possibly the first step in that terribly flawed direction.

JAMES NOONAN thinks that government censorship and regulation of the media is an attack on free speech and affront to the Constitution super duper. Let him know what you think at jjnoonan@ucdavis.edu.


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