Civil Liberties

Stripping Cable

The war on "indecency"


Freed from the fetters that bind broadcasters using "the public airwaves," cable and satellite providers are able to pipe into our homes the indecent, gratuitous, excessively violent programming that all right-thinking Americans demand. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) wants to change that.

Rockefeller hopes to incorporate portions of his Indecent, Gratuitous, and Excessively Violent Programming Protection Act, co-sponsored last year by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Tex.), into a broad telecommunications bill the Senate Commerce Committee is considering. His bill would, among other things, increase fines for broadcasters who run afoul of indecency rules, expand the Federal Communications Commission's regulatory authority to cover "gratuitous violence," and, most radically, subject "basic" and "enhanced basic" cable and satellite programming to the same content rules broadcasters must follow.

Adam Thierer, director of the Progress and Freedom Foundation's Center for Digital Media Freedom, calls Rockefeller's proposal "the most aggressive censorship measure that could come out of Congress since the Communications Decency Act," parts of which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1997. Thierer says the new restrictions are not likely to be approved this time around. The telecom bill, he says, already is "so bloated that it would be difficult to pass even without the censorship provisions." Even die-hard culture warriors such as Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) have expressed doubts that restrictions on the content of subscription services will stand up in court, and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) seems content to take a wait-and-see attitude in the wake of cable companies' decision to "voluntarily" offer customers "family tiers" of programming.

Since Rockefeller is aware of these political realities, it's tempting to see his push for a vote on his legislation as an exercise in grandstanding. Does that count as indecent or gratuitous?