Creeping Censorship

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In
1927 the US Senate nationalized the electromagnetic spectrum – then
called the ether – which are the airwaves where radio and TV signals
travel. They made this socialist move because of sheer impatience – the
Navy asked the Department of Justice to allocate property rights
in the medium but instead the Senate nationalized it.

Ever
since then, the medium has been treated as belonging to us all,
regulated "for us" by the feds. In fact, of course, the
feds pretty much regulated the medium for the few firms that had
gotten a foothold in the broadcast industry so that for decades
thereafter ABC, CBS and NBC formed an oligopoly and could nearly
completely control entry into the field. For a long while, in fact,
if someone wanted to enter broadcasting, one would be required to
go to Washington, DC, and make a case to the FCC that no other radio
or television broadcaster would be "harmed" – lose listeners
and viewers – by this entry into the market. Can you imagine – if you
wish to open a restaurant, you need to demonstrate to a bunch of
bureaucrats that other restaurants will not lose customers? Insane,
yet it was the law.

Worse
than even this, the nationalization of the airwaves resulted in
government censorship, the complete circumvention of the First Amendment
of the US Constitution, on the grounds of, "Well, this is public
property, after all, and thus it must be managed for the public
by the government." Like the roads or anything else government
has laid claim to and is thus empowered to manage.

Accordingly,
the principles of individual rights are voided, just as they are
when it comes to a public park or beach where local governments
can regulate who gets to be able to make use of it, when, and for
what purpose. All of this is directly in contradiction to the principles
of a genuine free society.

But
until now the policy of government management of speech had been
confined to public properties, mainly – there are rules about advertising,
about having to place public service messages on the air and so
forth, and there is, famously, the ban on the use of indecent words
and images. Now, however, we learn that Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska),
Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), and the new FCC Chair, Kevin
Martin, all want to extend censorship to cable TV (something one
must pay for and does not use the public airwaves) and even to satellite
radio, according to the reports I have been reading.

This
is how it goes: First the principles of individual liberty are abrogated
in the name of having to manage the public sphere. That sphere,
of course, keeps getting bigger and bigger – all the public education
facilities, for example, are included, which means that one of the
most vital sources of intellectual debate and exploration operates
under government management, resulting, for example, in the travesty
of official political correctness policies across the country.

Next,
once the idea of individual rights has been gradually eroded this
way, it no longer needs to be a public sphere for it to come under
government supervision. Thus we see the push for the ugly creeping
censorship that now faces us.

Sadly,
the one organization that is alert to it, the American Civil Liberties
Union, is mounting a resistance with bad arguments – the ACLU is talking
about how "indecency" cannot be defined, as if that were
the main reason against the proposed policy. Yet even if "indecency"
were perfectly definable – just as if "pornography" were – it
would not authorize anyone at all to ban it. Free men and women
must self-regulate these matters. Parents must deal with such hazards
vis-à-vis their children, let alone themselves, not a bunch
of politicians and bureaucrats who have no basic right to tell us
what to watch, what to say, what to read or anything.

Let
me tell you, this is really scary. And there isn't even any allusion
to terrorism here, so the folks pushing for this censorship are
evidently very confident that they have worn us all down in our
resistance to the creeping expansion of government power. I wish
we could prove them wrong.

April
8, 2005

Tibor
Machan [send
him mail
] is
R. C. Hoiles Professor of business ethics at Chapman University,
Orange CA. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and
advises Freedom Communications, Inc., on libertarian issues. He
is author of 30+ books, most recently, Objectivity:
Recovering Determinate Reality in Philosophy, Science, and Everyday
Life
and his memoir, The
Man Without a Hobby
.

Tibor
Machan Archives

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