Congress is patting itself on the back after passing legislation last week that expands the power of the Federal Communications Commission to crack down on broadcasters with heavy new $500,000 fines. Most politicians were all too eager to appease those demanding that Congress “do something” about racy Super Bowl shows and distasteful radio hosts, especially in an election year. It is clear that most members of Congress gave little thought to the legality or wisdom of the bill, caring only that they be seen as defenders of all things decent.
In doing so, Congress ignored a fundamental truth: government control over radio and television broadcasts is incompatible with a free society. FCC control of broadcast content, whether through licensing, regulations, or fines, is naked censorship that is utterly at odds with the plain words of the First Amendment. It could not be any clearer: “Congress shall make no law.”
The censors from both political parties argue that because the broadcast spectrum is publicly owned, the public has a right to control the content. But “public” ownership really means government ownership. And government ownership means the current gang of bureaucrats in power gets to decide what is heard and seen. Airwaves are far too precious to be owned or controlled by government- like other scarce and valuable natural resources, airwaves should be controlled by market forces. One mistake- nationalizing the airwaves- does not justify another. We should not violate the First Amendment today because of the sins of the past.
There’s nothing new about this latest congressional attack on expression. The political right wing has always embraced censorship, believing that government can foster and protect moral values through strict regulation of speech. But this curious attitude conflicts with the central tenet of conservatism, namely a healthy mistrust of government. Why do conservatives feel compelled to have a federal nanny state protect their children from indecency? Why do conservatives, who once questioned and resisted the growing involvement of government in our lives, now trust FCC bureaucrats to determine moral standards? Conservatives should know that a decent society is rooted in strong families, churches, and civic institutions, not government control of broadcasting.
The political left is no better when it comes to free speech. The left may be more permissive toward lurid or obscene material, but it has zero tolerance for political, religious, and social commentary that falls outside the bounds of rigid political correctness doctrines it created. Liberals are happy to restrict so-called commercial speech; happy to jail those who commit phony hate crimes merely by speaking their minds; and happy to impose speech codes on college campuses.
Conservatives must understand that the powers they grant the FCC today may one day be used against them. It is not hard to imagine a future where criticism of abortion is deemed hate speech against women, or criticism of affirmative action considered an unlawful attack on minorities. It is not hard to imagine President Hillary Clinton ordering the FCC to shut down Rush Limbaugh for using the term “feminazi.” Already a petition has been filed with the Justice department to investigate The Passion of the Christ for possible hate crimes against those who dislike the film’s theology! Big-government conservatives will learn that heavy-handed federal control of speech is far more likely to result in a rigidly secular, politically-correct society than a moral society imbued with Christian virtue.
The First Amendment is worthless if it does not protect unpopular, controversial expression. It is precisely when the sensibilities of many Americans are offended that the First Amendment is needed most. Many of our cherished religious, political, and legal traditions are rooted in once-radical ideas. It’s a short step from regulating words and images to regulating thoughts and ideas.
Ultimately, broadcasters air indecent material only if the market demands it. Congress cannot raise the moral bearing of the American people by edict, but it can destroy liberty in the process. When it comes to decency, the American people should stop looking to government and start looking at themselves.