Senate fears First Amendment issues

A key lawmaker determined to legislate against violent content trashed the television industry for engaging in a “race to the bottom,” dismissed a large-scale campaign to inform parents about blocking controls as “farcical” and called part of a Fox exec’s testimony “inordinately repulsive.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) netted little support among his committee colleagues, who, while expressing concern about violent content, also worried about doing violence to the First Amendment.

In a hearing Monday about the effects of media violence on children, members of the Senate Commerce Committee questioned experts on various sides of the issue and found essentially unanimous concern about the extent of violent imagery in media — mainly TV — and its potential to harm kids. But sharp differences emerged on what to do.

Frustrated after working on the issue for more than decade, including several failed attempts to pass violence-related legislation on it, Rockefeller promised to introduce a bill yet again, “and I will continue to do so until something happens.”

“I fear that graphic violent programming has become so pervasive and has been shown to be so harmful, we are left with no choice but to have the government step in,” Rockefeller said. “To be blunt, the big media companies have placed a greater emphasis on their corporate short-term profits than on the long-term health and well-being of our children.”

He accused the industry of “hiding behind ineffective band-aids of voluntary measures,” such as a $300 million campaign to inform parents about existing blocking technologies.

Rockefeller referred to the campaign as “farcical” and as “Jack Valenti’s gigantic joke.” Valenti was spearheading the campaign until his recent death.

After Fox Broadcasting entertainment prexy Peter Liguori detailed the net’s efforts to guard against inappropriate content airing as well as to ensure complete and accurate program ratings, Rockefeller later responded, “To say that it’s all a problem for parents is an inordinately repulsive statement.”

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), expressed concern about content but cautioned that Congress “must tread softer” than Rocke-feller would like because of Constitutional concerns. Other Republicans expressed similar sentiments, questioning the legitimacy of trying to address the issue at all through legislation.

Witnesses supporting Rockefeller included Parents Television Council topper Tim Winter; the American Psychological Assn.’s chief legislative affairs officer, Jeff McIntyre; and U. of Arizona communications professor Dale Kunkel.

Each cited increases in the amount of violence on TV and pointed to governmental studies showing a connection between TV violence and childhood aggres-sion.

Liguori, however, noted that these same studies failed to establish a causal link.

First Amendment expert and Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe, hired as a consultant by major media, stated that in the absence of a causal link, any attempt to legislate against TV violence would not likely withstand court scrutiny.

“It is not in the long-term interest of children to sacrifice free speech on the altar of protecting children,” Tribe testified. “We’re better off empowering parents,” he added, acknowledging that this “isn’t a total solution but it is the least intrusive.”

Rockefeller rejected the suggestion, saying that just because crafting legislation that would withstand court scrutiny would be difficult, “It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”

The ongoing controversy over media violence was renewed in the spring, when the FCC released a report saying that the government could regulate violent content in a way that upheld the First Amendment. But the report lacked specifics on how to do that, even failing to include — though Congress requested it — a working definition of “excessive violence” that could be used to justify legislation.

Moreover, the government’s role as watchdog of the airwaves was recently reined in by a federal appeals court that ruled the FCC had overstepped its authority in citing Fox for indecency violations over fleeting expletives. Rockefeller has acknowledged that implications of the decision will make his attempt at legislating on violence more difficult.

FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin was skedded to appear before the committee but had to cancel because of a family emergency, Rockefeller said.

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