Is it time to provide limits for violent content?

By Jeffery L. Blevins

Although broadcast stations and networks can be fined for airing fleeting expletives or brief nudity outside the safe harbor for so-called indecent programming, there is no such legal recourse for broadcasting graphic violence.  However, viewing televised violence is perceived to have a more harmful effect on children than fleeting expletives or brief nudity.  So, if objectionable sexual content and language can be lawfully channeled to times of the day when children are less likely to be the broadcast audience, why cannot the same be done for violent programming?

In a 2007 report to Congress, the FCC made two primary recommendations that it claimed would help protect children without unduly burdening First Amendment rights: (1) devise a time channeling solution for violent television programming that parallels current indecency rules; and (2) pass an a la carte cable law that gives consumers the option to buy channels individually, and therefore avoid having to pay for and receive channels with programming that they consider objectionable.  Such a regime would afford more consumer (and parental) control over exposure to violent content, as some networks carry more.  This would also seem to comport with the television industry‚s position that it is up to parents (not government) to protect children from objectionable programming.

While First Amendment champions have charged that applying the safe harbor to violent content would trample Constitutional rights, this concern cuts both ways.  The First Amendment is not only about the right to speak (and not speak), it is also the right to receive (and not receive) the speech of others.  Why should consumers be forced to pay for and receive channels that they do not wish to view, especially if they have children that may be harmed by the programming those networks tend to carry?

(Jeffrey L. Blevins is an assistant professor at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.)

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