The current debate about efforts to curb incessant violence on television has turned into an unnecessary confrontation between those who recognize that aestheticized violence is contributing to the body counts on our streets and civil libertarians who claim regulation amounts to censorship.
Lawsuits have increased dramatically since a federal court in 1979 rejected a civil suit against three networks in which the plaintiff claimed televised violence inspired a minor to kill an 83-year-old woman. Such lawsuits have been rejected on two theories: the First Amendment protects free speech, including entertainment, if there is no advocacy of criminal conduct; and there is insufficient evidence to link televised violence and subsequent criminal acts.
The responsible regulation of broadcasting violence, however, need not entail constitutional issues. The First Amendment originally was intended to protect political speech. Only in the past several decades has it been found to protect entertainment as well. Moreover, the First Amendment does not protect defamatory, obscene or false speech; nor does it protect incitement, the classic example being the man who shouts "fire" in a crowded theater. It is highly ironic that no one is troubled by the absence of explicit lovemaking on television that might be considered obscene, while efforts to regulate or restrict graphic depictions of murder and mayhem are said to amount to censorship.
In addition to the fact that the First Amendment does not protect all communication, speech is subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. For example, a politician may not send a loudspeaker blasting political messages in the street at 2 a.m. The public's right not to receive the message at that particular time and place and in that manner outweighs the politician's right to disseminate it. Network television and radio airways are owned by the public, not the networks, and are subject to government regulation by the Federal Communications Commission. As the Supreme Court ruled regarding the radio broadcast of George Carlin's "seven dirty words" routine, the government has the right to impose content-based restrictions on vulgar or offensive programming, even if not obscene, particularly to protect children. If the material is found to be obscene, it may be banned completely. Given the demonstrable harm caused by violent programming, the same standards should be applied to broadcasts of violence.
Any suggestion that television has no impact on young viewers is flatly contradicted by the success of television advertising aimed at children. And more than 200 studies have concluded that exposure to televised violence is a contributing factor to subsequent criminal behavior. If our children's baby-sitters taught them violence, we would take strong action. Television is our modern-age baby-sitter. An average child watches 24 hours of television per week. By the seventh grade, he or she will have witnessed 100,000 acts of violence and 7,000 murders on television. Studies also conclude that the poorer a family, the more likely the television set will be used as a baby-sitter.
Faced with threats of a federal monitoring program that would restrict the hours of violent programs, the broadcast networks have agreed to retain an independent monitor to assess the overall level of violence on television, including cable. …