Democrats Abandoning the First Amendment, Part 2: Regulating “Excessive Violence” on TV

by on January 30, 2007

In Part 1 of this series, I argued that the Democratic Party seems to be gradually abandoning whatever claim it once had to being the party of the First Amendment. Regrettably, examples of Democrats selling out the First Amendment are becoming more prevalent and the few champions of freedom of speech and expression left in the party are getting more difficult to find.

For example, in my previous essay, I documented how Democratic politicians were leading the charge to reinstitute the so-called Fairness Doctrine. In today’s entry I will discuss how Democrats are now working hand-in-hand with Republicans to orchestrate what would constitute the most significant expansion of content regulation in decades–the regulation of “excessive violence” on television.

Last week, L.A. Times technology and media reporter Jim Puzzanghera wrote a detailed piece about how “Washington May Take Up TV Violence” in coming months. In his article he noted that:

With a fresh Congress sworn in and a major (FCC) report expected soon on TV gore, pressure is likely to mount to more aggressively stem graphic and gratuitous scenes in shows. One proposal would give regulators powers similar to those they have now to punish indecency and coarse language over the airwaves.

In addition, TV violence is shaping up as a 2008 presidential campaign issue with some of the leading potential candidates already at the forefront of the issue. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has long talked about the effect of gory TV shows and video games on children. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) favors allowing families to buy cable channels separately so they can spurn objectionable shows. Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) also have bemoaned TV violence.

Puzzanghera notes that, beyond Democratic presidential front-runners Clinton and Obama, other congressional Democrats and regulators at the FCC have jumped on the regulatory bandwagon. At the FCC, Democratic Commissioner Michael J. Copps, recently argued that, “In the absence of action from the industry [to address violence on television], I think we need to be looking at all our options.” He means regulatory options, of course. And, over in Congress, Puzzanghera reminds us that in 2004, Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), the new head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was one of 39 House members signing a letter to the FCC asking the agency to study violence on television and how it might be restricted. With Dingell now running the committee in which most communications / media legislation originates, this could mean that regulation is on the way.

Puzzanghera also highlighted one particularly important legislative proposal that I have written quite a bit about in recent years–Senator John D. Rockefeller’s (D-W.Va) “Indecent and Gratuitous and Excessively Violent Programming Control Act.” (S. 616 in the last Congress).

As I noted in my detailed analysis of the bill in April of 2005: “If passed, S. 616 would represent the most significant congressional effort to regulate speech since the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996.” That’s because the measure would significantly expand the penalties that traditional broadcast outlets face for indecency violations, and then apply those penalties to cable and satellite. More importantly, in the process, the measure also proposes to let FCC regulators embark on a grand new experiment in regulating “excessively violent” video programming, not just on broadcast television, but also on subscription-based cable and satellite TV.

Puzzanghera notes that Rockefeller plans on reintroducing the measure this session and “With his own party now in the majority, Rockefeller may get hearings and a vote, further propelling the issue.” Sen. Rockefeller tells Puzzanghera that “Obviously, the preference would be to have the industry police itself when it comes to excessive violence. However, if they can’t or won’t do it, then Congress must step in and address this growing societal problem,” Rockefeller said. “One of the most basic steps we can take is to give the FCC authority to regulate violence, and if necessary, the courts will then work out the constitutional issues on a case-by-case basis… Just sitting on our hands and doing nothing to protect children is not an option.”

But before Rockefeller and other Democrats embark on a new “it’s-all-for-the-children” crusade to rid the world of media violence, hopefully they will be willing to consider the mixed “scientific” record on this front as well as the First Amendment complexities associated with defining and regulating “excessive violence” on television.

Academic Evidence, or Lack Thereof

The academic literature on the effects of media violence is not nearly as unified as you might think. In fact, as Dr. Edward Fink of the Department of Radio-TV-Film at California State University-Fullerton, notes, you can find endless reports to support just about any thesis you want to believe in:

Do you want to believe that TV violence is bad? Plenty of research there. One example comes from Dr. L. Rowell Huesmann and associates in the American Psychological Association journal Developmental Psychology, March 2003. They found that a high level of TV violence in childhood is a predictor of more-aggressive behavior in adulthood.

Do you want to believe that TV violence is not necessarily bad? There’s plenty of stuff! One example comes from Dr. Ron Warren in the Broadcast Education Association’s Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, September 2003. He found that parental mediation of children’s TV viewing can both inhibit negative effects and enhance positive effects.

Do you want to believe both? Once again, a bounty of data! One example is the comprehensive National Television Violence Study, published by the University of California, Santa Barbara. It concludes, “Television can be a powerful influence on social mores concerning violence and aggression, for good or for ill.”

Do you want summaries of research? One example comes from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s fact sheet, Key Facts: TV Violence, Spring 2003, which outlines studies that present opposing viewpoints. If you prefer your summary from the government, have a look at Section II, “Violent Programming on Television,” of the 108th Congress’s Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004.

All reasonable people, and yes, that includes most broadcasters and academicians, are sensitive to the potential–though not always the actual–harm of TV violence. This argument is not for TV violence; it is against the government’s exercising a right of censorship it does not have, not even in an election year.

Others have confirmed this academic schizophrenia and pointed out that, if anything, the “scientific” literature on this subject is ambiguous at best and perhaps even leans against the “causal hypothesis” that media violence leads to aggressive behavior. Psychologist Jonathan L. Freedman conducted the most comprehensive review of all the major literature on this subject for his book Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence. He concluded that “the results do not support the view that exposure to media violence causes children or anyone else to become aggressive or to commit crimes; nor does it support the idea that it causes people to be less sensitive to real violence.” Freedman collected and reviewed all the laboratory experiments, field experiments, longitudinal studies, and other studies employing mixed methodologies. He concluded that “not one type of research provided the kind of supportive evidence that is ordinarily required to support a hypothesis. Not one found 90 percent supportive or 80 percent supportive or 70 percent supportive or even 50 percent. In fact, regardless of the method used, fewer than half the studies found results that supported the [causal] hypothesis–sometimes considerably fewer than half.”

Finally, when we step outside the laboratory setting and examine real world trends in a search for a supposed casual link, we don’t find one there either. Consider, for example, the reversal of various social indicators over the past decade. According to FBI reports, juvenile murder, rape, robbery and assault are all down significantly over the past decade. Overall, aggregate violent crime by juveniles fell 43 percent from 1995-2004. And ongoing University of Michigan surveys have revealed that there are fewer murders at school today and fewer students report carrying weapons to school or anywhere else than at any point in the past decade. Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control reports that although teenage suicide rates rose steadily until the mid-1990s but then began a dramatic decline which continues today. Again, while all these social trends were improving, media exposure–including exposure to violent fare–was increasing.

These results do not conclusively rule out a link between exposure to violence media content and violent acts in the real world. But they should at least call into question the “world-is-going-to-hell” sort of generalizations made by proponents of increased media regulation who all too often make casual inferences about the relationship between media exposure and various social indicators.

First Amendment Concerns

In light of what the data tells us, one would hope that policy makers would proceed cautiously when it comes to regulating “excessively violent” media content since serious First Amendment / artistic freedom issues are at stake here. And one would especially hope that Democrats would express some skepticism about the folly of such a regulatory pursuit.

After all, why should we let five unelected bureaucrats down at the FCC determine what constitutes “excessive violence.” Are the bloody and occasionally gruesome scenes in TV shows like CSI and ER excessive, or is that a reasonable depiction of forensic and medical science? Hockey games on prime-time TV feature lots of fights, blood, and lost teeth. Should they only be shown on tape delay after kids are in bed? For decades, cartoons have offered a buffet of violent acts, and slapstick comedy of The Three Stooges variety features a lot of unforgivingly violent moments presented as humor. How about gruesome war scenes from actual combat that any child can see on the nightly news? How about Saving Private Ryan or other war movies? What about the stabbing, poisoning, and other heinous acts of violence found in Shakespeare’s tragedies? And, for God’s sake (excuse the pun), what about all the violence in the Bible or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? Can any of it be shown on television or cable?

I could go on and on, but you get the point. This all comes down to a question of who calls the shots–parents or government–regarding what we are allowed to see and hear in a free society. This is not to say society must celebrate or even defend violence in the media; there are plenty of movies, shows and games that do contain what many parents would regard as a troubling amount of violent content for young children to witness. Parents need to act responsibly and exercise their private right–indeed, responsibility–to self-censor their children’s eyes and ears from certain things. It’s become increasingly evident, however, that a lot of parents have just gotten lazy about carrying out this difficult job. As the father of two young children, I can appreciate the hassle of constantly trying to monitor a child’s viewing and listening habits. But that’s no excuse for throwing in the towel and calling in the government to censor what the rest of the world has access to. That’s especially the case in light of the fact that, according to the Census Bureau, just one-third of U.S. households have children in them. For the two-thirds of adult-only homes, such a regulatory regime is blatantly unfair.

Again, I can cite plenty of Republicans, such as Sen. Brownback and others, who support calling in Uncle Sam to play the role of surrogate parent and police “excessively violent” media content. But the fact that so many Democrats are joining this crusade is frightening since, again, it makes you wonder if there are any free speech champions left in Washington.

(Up next in this series, I plan on talking about how Democrats are now employing similar tactics and rhetoric in their continuing effort to regulate “violent video games.” But that might get preempted by another piece on how Democrats are leading a variety new efforts to regulate Internet content. Unfortunately, there’s a lot to cover on this front these days.)

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