Saturday, April 16, 2005

Column on Creeping Censorship

Creeping Censorship

Tibor R. Machan

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.

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