The First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech has complex implications, but it clearly means two things: The government cannot tell you what to say, and it cannot tell you what not to say. That is your own business, and if you conduct it in a way the government dislikes, the government can go climb a skinny pole.
Unless by "government" you mean the Federal Communications Commission. It operates on the assumption that in its special realm, the First Amendment is a non-binding resolution. So while Potomac paper-pushers would never dream of issuing orders to newspapers, book publishers, filmmakers or bloggers, they feel complete freedom to tell TV networks and radio stations what to do. And the broadcasters see little choice but to comply.
An example of what happens when they don't comply came in a recent dispute between the agency and Univision, the giant Spanish-language network. Federal law requires TV networks to air at least three hours of educational programming aimed at children every week. Univision put on soap operas it claimed were of educational value to kids. But the FCC disagreed and fined the network $24 million for failing to carry out its government-imposed duties.
This is just part of the agency's plan to tighten its control of what you watch. Last year, it mounted a crackdown on indecency that raised the interesting philosophical question of how the F-word can morph from indecent to not indecent. The FCC, you see, says F-words are not all alike. If Tom Hanks uses the term in "Saving Private Ryan," it's okay, but if Cher uses it on an awards telecast, it's not.
In all this, the agency has the support of Congress, which last year passed legislation raising the maximum fine for violations from $32,500 to $325,000. The point of this sort of enforcement is to protect children and, in the words of President Bush, "help strengthen families."But parents who want to shield their kids from bad language on TV already have ample means to do so -- in the form of channel blocking and V-chips that can be used to filter out programs with content they regard as inappropriate.
The FCC says these methods are ineffective because parents don't use them. More likely, parents don't bother because they don't think the problem is serious enough to justify the effort to shield kids from words they've already heard on YouTube. To insert the federal government is not a way to strengthen the authority of parents but to circumvent it.
You might think a Democratic Congress would be less inclined to brook federal interference with free expression, but dream on. While Republicans like to crack down on "bad" programming, Democrats like to demand "good" programming. When the Univision fine was announced, it won applause from Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who chairs the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. In this regulatory environment, freedom is not a factor: Anything not forbidden is compulsory.
The idea that we need the FCC to assure educational opportunities for children is nonsense on stilts. In the first place, there are plenty of channels, from PBS to the Discovery Channel, that offer nothing but educational programming. If parents don't like what Univision offers, they have plenty of alternatives. In the second place, any parents truly interested in exposing their children to intellectual stimulation are more likely to shut the TV off than turn it on.
The Supreme Court long ago sanctioned regulation of speech on radio and TV on the grounds that broadcast frequencies are scarce and not accessible to all. But with the advent of cable and satellite transmission, which is how nearly 90 percent of Americans get their TV shows, the scarcity argument collapses. The number of potential channels is now unlimited.
Today, most viewers no longer distinguish between cable and broadcast programs. So having different rules for each makes about as much sense as having different regulations for odd- and even-numbered channels. It's high time broadcasters were placed under America's original rule on how the government should regulate free expression: Don't.