article-single

Creeping Censorship

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

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts