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Keynote Address: Annenberg Public Policy Center’s
5th Annual Conference on Children & Media
Washington, DC
June 26, 2000

(as prepared for delivery)

I’m pleased and honored to be with you to discuss one of my favorite topics – children.


While the Internet has been getting a lot of attention lately, television is still the medium that children spend the most time with. According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children on average watch 2 hours and 46 minutes of television a day, compared to 48 minutes spent listening to CD’s or tapes, the second most popular media activity. The Internet is far behind, at an average of only 8 minutes per day. This number is probably brought down by younger children who do not surf the Net at all, but these are precisely the children who are most vulnerable and most in need of protection.

That our children represent the future is a cliché in Washington. Politicians and policy-makers of all stripes promise to do whatever they can to protect and nurture our children’s intellectual and emotional development. But, more often than not, when push comes to shove, all the fine-sounding rhetoric is just that. And it’s easy to see why. Children don’t have money. Children don’t vote or call their members of Congress. Children don’t have trade associations. Children don’t give money to political campaigns. Children do not have lobbyists wearing out paths in the halls of congress. They rely on third parties – we adults – to protect and advance their interests.

Sometimes this is not a problem. Children can do quite well when it comes to issues like education, where no powerful interests line up against them. But children do less well when it comes to other issues, like protecting them from harmful influences in the media. There the interests of children run directly against the interests of some of the most powerful and well-organized groups in Washington.

The most popular sham objection to protecting children from harmful media influences is the First Amendment. We can’t protect children, the argument goes, because that would deny adults their First Amendment rights. We can protect our children, but only at the expense of the First Amendment. I reject that thinking. We do not have to choose between protecting our children and protecting the First Amendment. We can do both.

And that’s what I’d like to focus on – a couple of ways to protect our children from the harmful effects of unrestricted access to television without depriving adults of rights secured by the First Amendment. First, the V-Chip, new technology that allows parents to block programming they believe is inappropriate for their children. Second, I’ll discuss the FCC’s indecency enforcement. And third, I’ll discuss the obscenity standard and propose that government can regulate obscenely or excessively violent images routinely available to our children.

If we had more time, I would start with a discussion of causation – why we should even be concerned if our children are exposed to sex and violence on TV. But for purposes of this presentation, let me rely on the assumptions made by Congress in passing the V-Chip legislation in 1996 – (1) that violence in the media affects children and makes them more likely to engage in violent and aggressive behavior late in life; and (2) that children are affected by the pervasiveness and casual treatment of sex on television, eroding parents’ ability to teach responsible behavior.


A little over a year ago, FCC Chairman William Kennard asked me to head the FCC V-Chip Task Force. At the time, the ratings system and technical standards for V-Chip deployment had been set – but the system was far from ready to go. There weren’t many TV sets on the market equipped with V-Chips. Very few programmers were actually encoding the ratings on the Vertical Blanking Interval. And not many parents were aware of the V-Chip and how it could be used to protect their children.

I’m pleased to report that the first two problems have been resolved. The TV set manufacturers met the deadlines for roll-out of V-Chip sets. As of last January, every new set with a screen 13 inches or greater is now equipped with a V-chip. And virtually all of the major broadcast and cable networks, and all of the major syndicators, are encoding and transmitting the ratings. So the physical system is in place. The programs are rated. The ratings are encoded and transmitted. The chips are in the sets. And the chips can be programmed to block shows that parents don’t want their children to watch.

Despite the V-Chip’s availability, too many parents still do not know what the V-Chip is. A recent Kaiser survey found that 39% of parents have never even heard of the V-Chip, despite another study’s conclusion that 77% of Americans said they would use V-Chip technology if available. Obviously, there is unfinished business. We need to keep working hard to educate parents. Companies would not put a new product into the marketplace without a solid marketing effort to support it. We need to do the same for the V-Chip.

I can’t tell you how many people – especially members of the media – are eager to throw dirt on the V-Chip. Nearly every week I get a call from some reporter asking “Isn’t the V-Chip a failure” or “Why aren’t parents swarming into stores to demand V-Chip sets”? Only six months after the V-Chip became standard equipment, the nay-sayers claim its DOA. Think about it. How many people rush out to get more advanced cellular phones while the old one still works? How many families still utilize VCRs despite availability of DVD players? It is irresponsible to declare victory or defeat after 6 months. These things take time. The evidence of the use of the V-Chip so far is actually positive. A Kaiser study found that, of the parents who have a V-Chip set in their homes, one-third are using the V-Chip to help guide their children’s viewing.

When the V-Chip was first debated, there were many who argued that it amounted to government censorship. That’s another sham argument – the V-Chip empowers parents, not government, to decide what material can be shown in their homes. If the V-Chip is censorship, then so is a parent who uses a remote control to turn off the set if they don’t like what their children are watching.

The V-Chip is a powerful tool that responds to the modern reality that parents can’t always be home to monitor what their children are watching. According to Kaiser, 8-18 year-olds watch television without their parents 95% of the time, while 2-7 year-olds watch without their parents 81% of the time. And the V-Chip can help to protect children from harmful programming where the Commission’s rules are failing.

The FCC’s Indecency Standard

Congress empowered the FCC to fine any licensee who broadcasts “obscene, indecent, or profane language.” The courts have upheld the constitutionality of the FCC’s definition of indecency, as well as the ban on indecency between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Commission’s indecency rules properly balance the First Amendment with the government’s compelling interest in supporting parental supervision of what their children see and hear over the public airwaves, as well as the government’s own interest in our children’s well-being.

Unfortunately, the FCC rarely exercises its authority over indecent material despite Congressional authorization and Supreme Court approval. The Commission appears so averse to indecency cases, and has erected so many procedural barriers to complaints from members of the public, that indecency enforcement has become virtually non-existent.

For instance, if a member of the public wants to file an indecency or obscenity complaint, the Commission generally requires them to submit tapes, transcripts or significant excerpts of the offending material. It means that children cannot be protected from indecency on the public airwaves unless the parents have the foresight to have a tape recorder or VCR running when the offending language is broadcast. This is surely an unreasonable burden to impose on the public.

The impact of these procedural barriers is significant. In its standard letter dismissing complaints filed without a tape, transcript or significant excerpts, the Commission acknowledges that this “may preclude enforcement in some meritorious cases,” but finds that such a requirement serves the public interest because of the sensitivity of the First Amendment.

I acknowledge the importance of the First Amendment. But, we must balance the Amendment’s protections for speech against the compelling interest in protecting our children from indecent and harmful material. The Commission’s handling of incoming complaints unnecessarily burdens efforts to strike that balance.

A plaintiff can sue a radio station for libel or slander, for instance, without clearing the procedural hurdles that the Commission requires to initiate an investigation of indecency. The First Amendment should not be read to require a higher standard for indecency than for filing a lawsuit for libel or slander.

It’s time for the Commission to take down the procedural barriers that frustrate concerned parents. It’s our duty to the law, and, more important, our duty to our children.

Obscenity Standard and Violent Images

Now, let me briefly discuss the law of obscenity and offer a suggestion about where the law ought to go. I also want to dispel the assumption that speech depicting violence is absolutely protected by the First Amendment. Much of what I’m going to discuss touches on themes developed by Professor Kevin Saunders of the University of Oklahoma School of Law. I am indebted to Professor Saunders’ work.

When I speak about the issue of violence in the media, I often get the same question from the audience. I’m asked why can sex or bodily function images be “obscene” or “indecent” – and hence banned or regulated – but images of excessive violence can’t. Before I began looking into the issue, I dismissed the question. I’d been so accustomed to the idea that obscenity means sex or bodily function that I thought it must have always been so. Instead, I am now convinced that as strong a case can be made for violence as obscenity, as for sex as obscenity.

There may be some who purists who think the language of the First Amendment is absolute, and that there is no such thing as “unprotected speech.” Under this view, not only obscenity laws would fall. Libel and slander laws and the ban on yelling “Fire!” in a crowded room like this one would disappear as well. Fortunately, that’s not the law. These narrow classes of speech are outside the protection of the First Amendment.

“Obscene” speech and images also are outside the protection of the First Amendment. That means that obscene speech can be banned outright or regulated to protect children from being exposed to it. And it can be regulated in ways that would be impermissible if it were protected speech.

The Commission’s definition of obscenity is the same as the U.S. Supreme Court’s:

(a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
You may be surprised to learn that the Supreme Court did not hold obscene speech is unprotected speech until 1957, in Roth v. United States. And it was the Roth Court that first limited its definition of obscenity to sexual and excretory activities.

Professor Saunders argues that the history relied upon by the Roth Court does not support distinguishing between images of obscene sex and images of obscene violence. The Roth Court noted that the First Amendment was never intended to be absolute, citing statutes from the colonies that were in effect at the time of adoption of the Bill of Rights. Interestingly, these were not obscenity statutes. They were largely blasphemy statutes. Connecticut’s law, for example, made it illegal “to blaspheme the Name of God the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, either by denying, cursing or reproaching the true God or his Government of the World.” Even those laws that also banned “profanity” were largely concerned with curses against religion.

So how did the Court find support for its conclusion that sexual speech was unprotected based on laws designed to protect religion? First, the Court found one state – Massachusetts – that made it illegal to publish “any filthy, obscene, or profane song, pamphlet, libel or mock sermon” in imitation of religious services. This led the Court to conclude “profanity and obscenity were related offenses.” An obscenity, according to the Court, refers to sex. Thus, the laws against blasphemy are related to laws against profanity; the laws against profanity are related to laws against obscenity; and laws against obscenity are related to sex.

In the post-Bill of Rights era, obscenity did not focus solely on sex or bodily function. In the few pre-Civil War cases on the issue, obscenity was “whatever outrages decency and is injurious to public morals.” That could certainly include sex, but it could just as easily include violence.

After the Civil War, obscenity statutes began to focus more clearly on sex. But, at the same time, some states passed laws that focused on depictions of violence. These statutes banned the distribution of books or magazines reporting “deeds of bloodshed” or “crime.” Some states limited the bans to the distribution of violent material to minors. In fact, an anti-violence statute in Iowa was entitled “Giving or showing obscene literature to minors.” The point is simple. The Court reasoned by analogy. The line between obscene images of bodily functions that are unprotected by the First Amendment and obscene or excessively violent images that everyone seems to believe are protected, is not a constitutionally significant one.

So where does that leave us? It means that, as a legal and historical matter, the case for placing obscenely violent images that reach children outside of the protections of the First Amendment is as strong as the case for excluding obscene sexual or excretory images. There is no indication that the Founding Fathers intended to exclude sexual or excretory speech from protection, but not obscenely violent speech.

It means that the government should be able to regulate violent speech that reaches children, to limit it in ways that would be impermissible for fully protected speech, directed at adults. We might also consider a category of less offensive violent speech – call it “indecent” violent speech – that could be channeled away from children.

It means that the Supreme Court should revisit the doctrine set forth in Roth that limited categories of unprotected speech to obscene depictions of sex and excretory activities and extend it to include obscenely violent images that reach children. The shield of the First Amendment should not become a sword that harms our children.

It means that Congress and state governments ought to legislate in this area and not proceed under the assumption that anti-violence laws would be stricken. Any “obscene violence” law ought to stay as close as possible to the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity: (1) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the material, taken as a whole, appeals to an unhealthy or morbid interest in violence; (2) whether the material describes, in a patently offensive way, violent conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (3) whether the material, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

I can anticipate many of the objections to expanding the definition of obscenity to include obscenely violent speech, but I don’t think any of them will carry the day. First, there will be the inevitable parade of examples of violent speech that ought to be protected. Shakespeare, Schindler’s List. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. And on and on.

But garden-variety jurisprudence resolves these challenges. Grimm’s tales would not be considered “obscene” because the material “as a whole” does not appeal to an unhealthy, morbid interest in violence, nor does it lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Indeed, the FCC recently rejected a complaint that Schindler’s List was indecent because it showed naked people lined up outside the Nazi gas chambers. We can apply the same common sense definition when it comes to questions of obscenely violent speech.

Some will also say that any statute against obscene or indecent violence would be too vague. But here again, there is no reason that the definition of violent obscenity would be any more vague than the definition of sexual obscenity. There will be hard cases for both. But, as the Roth Court noted, the existence of hard cases does not render such laws impermissibly vague.

Finally, some will say that excluding obscenely violent speech from full First Amendment protection will open up the floodgates to suppression of many forms of speech. What speech will be restricted next? Political speech? But there is a historical record to exclude violent speech from complete protection, just as there is a historical record to exclude sexual or libelous speech, or speech that violates a copyright holder’s rights. Traditionally, the government has also had more flexibility to regulate speech on television that reaches children than other types of speech. So the test of history will keep the floodgates closed.

I’d like to quote Senator Fritz Hollings, who said the following in introducing his bill to require a safe harbor time period during which television programmers could not transmit excessively violent shows:

I want to stress that this is an issue about accountability and responsibility. Those responsible for supplying video programming have been granted a public trust through the availability of broadcast spectrum and FCC licenses to deliver their programming to America’s children. They should be responsible for their programming choices. We know, however, that market forces may encourage them to be irresponsible and transmit excessive violent programming. We in the Congress have a responsibility to hold them accountable.

I agree with Senator Hollings. We do have a responsibility to protect our children from obscenely violent images on television.

In closing, I’d like to get back to the cliché – a cliché but true – children are our future. As a public official, I would like to protect them by law and regulation. But if law and regulation fail our children, what is my choice? As a citizen and a mother, I can protect my young child by using the V-Chip, turning off the TV, or using the business model – which is not buying goods or services from advertisers who sponsor and thereby support violent programming. And I can only hope others do so as well.