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Saving Private Ryan from the FCC

By Robert Garmong
web posted November 15, 2004

The assault on Omaha beach in Saving Private RyanOn Veterans Day 2001 and 2002, ABC stations nationwide broadcast "Saving Private Ryan," uncut and uninterrupted. The film, an extremely realistic portrayal of the D-Day invasion, was presented as a celebration of the American soldier's indomitable will to meet and defeat any enemy. But Private Ryan met a homegrown enemy: the Federal Communications Commission.

Fearing FCC punishment, more than twenty ABC stations refused to broadcast the movie, which includes violence and obscene language.

They have good reason to be afraid. After the Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction," the FCC declared war on free speech. Million-dollar fines have been levied, and a new "three-strikes" policy will automatically revoke the license of any station with three indecency violations on its record. Even more ominous, FCC commissioner Michael Copps has vowed that he will not be satisfied until "I see us send one or two . . . cases for license revocation."

In this headlong rush to expand the government's authority over the media, no one has paused to consider whether the government should have such authority in the first place. No one has noticed that the very existence of the FCC is a flagrant violation of the right to free speech.

Throughout history the norm was tyranny over the mind. Men were allowed to speak only by government imprimatur, until America's first amendment established freedom of speech as a central premise of our nation. The first amendment demands that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." This language could not be clearer, or more absolute: no matter who disagrees with you or why, the government may not abridge your right to say it.

Free speech protects the rational mind and its literary, intellectual, and scientific products. It means the absolute right to express one's views, so long as one does not violate the rights of others. Free speech means no American should fear the fate of Galileo, persecuted for daring to assert scientific truths that contradicted official Church doctrines, nor that of Socrates, put to death for offending the state.

Yet the FCC exists to dictate what can be said on-air. Since the early days of radio, every broadcast station must apply to the FCC for permission to use the airwaves. Stations that fail to serve the "public interest," as defined by the FCC, can be fined, or even shut down, without appeal.

No one else in America is subjected to such persecution. If a homesteader clears land for farming, we recognize that he owns the results; if an inventor creates a new device or a piece of software, we give him a patent on it. Yet a broadcaster, who creates from scratch all the ideas, all the programming -- even the electromagnetic vibrations that allow us to receive it in our living rooms -- is allowed to do so only at the mercy of the "public interest." If the New York Times or Barnes & Noble publishes or distributes content some members of the public disapprove of, we do not threaten them with fines or penalties. But let Howard Stern offend a listener, and Clear Channel is hammered with over a million dollars in fines.

Broadcasters are running scared. Clear Channel has canceled its shock-jock programs. Skittish station-managers have bleeped out words from the Rush Limbaugh program. Most ominous, The National Association of Broadcasters convened a "Summit on Responsible Programming" to define industry-wide standards of self-censorship.

So far, only "indecency" has been targeted by the FCC's crackdown -- but politicians on both sides of the aisle have begun whispering demands to censor PBS or the Fox News Channel, on the grounds that their alleged biases violate the public interest. Both the Left, with its political correctness, and the Right, with its puritanical religious ethics, claim to speak for the "public interest." Can it be long before the two sides begin the battle over which ideas and values Americans are allowed to see and hear on-air?

America was founded on the freedom of speech, on the right and responsibility of the individual to decide what to say and what to listen to. Yet in the name of protecting ourselves from being offended -- and almost without noticing it -- we are well on the way to surrendering that crucial right to the control of the omnipotent state.

Robert Garmong, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

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