Speaking freely about TV censorship and campaign finance

    Jack Bauer of Fox’s action TV show 24 and Senator Russell Feingold (D., Wisconsin) don’t usually have a lot in common, but because of events two weeks ago, censorship laws could affect both of them.

    On April 25, the Federal Communications Commissionrecommended to Congress that the Commission regulate violence on broadcast television — as well as on cable and satellite for the first time, according to The Washington Post — to protect children. While Congress would have to develop a definition of violence, the Post suggests that any such regulation would force Fox to temper Jack Bauer’s interrogation style. The FCC says that “exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children, at least in the short term.” While the industry rates TV content (e.g., the TV MA rating in the corner of the screen at the start of a show designed for mature audiences), the FCC feels that those ratings aren’t well applied and that parents don’t take advantage of available technologies to block programming from their children.

    On the same day as the report’s release, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Federal Elections Commissions vs. Wisconsin Right to Life. The FECsays that under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (aka the McCain-Feingold Act), corporations and unions are not allowed directly to fund “electioneering communications — television or radio communications that refer to a clearly identified federal candidate and are distributed to the relevant electorate within 60 days prior to the general election or 30 days prior to a primary.” Corporations and Unions are allowed to donate limited funds to political action committees — specially regulated organizations allowed to contribute to campaigns — but cannot produce “electioneering communications” themselves. In 2003, the Supreme Court decided in McConnell vs. FEC that, on the face of it, the BCRA did not violate the First Amendment protection of free speech.

    However, in that decision, the Court said that some TV or radio ads which look like “electioneering communications” might actually be legitimate issues ads, which the First Amendment would protect. The current case, FEC vs. WRTL, is an “as-applied” challenge to the law. The Court will decide whether WRTL’s advertisement that mentioned Senator Feingold was a protected issue ad or an unprotected “electioneering communication.”

    According to Facebook, twenty-two percent of Northwestern students who list their political leanings categorize themselves as “liberal.” Talking to NU conservatives and liberals about the speech issue shows that liberals tend to take into account context and content, while conservatives view the freedom of speech as absolute.

    Weinberg sophomore Blake Yocom whose “views are more conservative than… Republican” sees the prospect of censorship as an affront to free speech. He doesn’t believe in lots of government regulation, and he also doesn’t believe that watching violence will induce people into committing violence themselves — although he did admit to performing some shenanigans with his cousin in his neighbor’s yard after watching Home Alone.

    On the other hand, Communication freshman Molly Lafferty, sees the power of images as paramount. Although she doesn’t feel she knows much about the psychology of children, she thinks that regulating violence is more important than regulating the sexual content on TV that’s already banned (recall Janet Jackson).

    “People dying in really grotesque ways is worse for kids to see than boobies,” she said.

    Weinberg sophomore Nathan Zebrowski, managing editor of the conservative Northwestern Chronicle, agreed with Yocom’s views that a free society is better than a moral one.

    “The government should only regulate things that will inherently get in the hands of the wrong people,” Zebrowski said. “Everything else should be left to individual choice.”

    Although he’s a liberal, Weinberg freshman Mac LeBuhn mostly agrees with the conservatives about regulating speech.

    “I’m sure that violence in media plays a part in violence in society,” he said, but he emphasized that it probably plays a very small role compared to issues such as family values and poverty. However, regardless of media’s role in society, he has a “hard time trusting” a particular group to differentiate good from bad speech.

    “[It’s] ideally left up to personal discretion,” LeBuhn said.

    While these students had opinions about violence on television, their feelings on the FEC and the regulation of campaign finance were much stronger. Again, conservatives and liberals disagreed on whether the effect of free speech or the principle of free speech is more important.

    The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and the FEC elicited vitriol from Yocom.

    “It’s a blatant violation of my free speech,” he said of limits on campaign spending and advertising, including the “electioneering communications” rules.

    Zebrowski said he feels that the limits are immoral and that the right of corporations and unions to be as politically active as individuals stems from the right to assemble, which is also guaranteed by the First Amendment.

    LeBuhn agrees with Lafferty (both liberals) about the importance of effects. They both think that money dominates the political discussion, and that the government should do something about it. They also emphasized the necessity of a level playing field. LeBuhm would like to see public financing of campaigns, but Lafferty thinks that campaigns would be better if they were outright smaller.

    “It’s just a ridiculous amount of money being spent on the process in general,” Lafferty said. “All that money could be going to so many other things, like feeding people, or fighting global warming.” She added that the campaigns were wasteful because they poured money into image rather than content.

    However, Zebrowksi is worried that there could be content we’re missing because of the laws. Through the ban on “electioneering communications,” campaign reform laws could be silencing “powerful collective voices we’re not aware of,” he said.

    While the Supreme Court has interpreted the constitution differently over the years, Lafferty has her own idea of the best laws protecting free speech. She said that if she were to write the laws, they would simply read, “Don’t be a douche bag.”


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