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Brownback's Hysteria

COMMITTED TO THE FIRST AMENDMENT 4/04/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

We want to thank Sen. Sam Brownback. By effectively pronouncing Howard Stern indecent last week, he bypassed the FCC and demonstrated that what Congress wants is a media obedient to its will.

His message to the masses: Send your complaints to the Hill and let legislators pore through the transcripts and fire off threatening letters to broadcasters. That cuts out all that messy due process and saves on administrative costs.

Back in the 1960s, Richard Nixon, whose own later tape recordings wouldn't pass FCC muster, warned broadcasters that, if they didn't understand all the lyrics in a song before they played it, that conduct would "raise ... serious questions as to whether continued operation of the station is in the public interest." We're told one station struck Bob Dylan from the playlist because they couldn't be sure what his lyrics meant.

Republican Brownback's media view has been just as frightening. He actually endorsed a letter from a viewer who suggested that CBS's Super Bowl halftime show, with its shocking bumps and dangerous grinds, provided ammunition to Osama bin Laden and other terrorists in the "cultural war" now being waged in Iraq. CBS "hurt the war effort by giving such obvious moral ammunition to the recruiters of Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban," said the Wyoming letter writer. Brownback, reading it aloud, concluded, "Outstanding response."

Outstanding? This letter reads like it was ripped off from an edition of Theonion.com. By giving a big attaboy to such nonsense, Brownback helped push the indecency crackdown into the realm of the absurd.

But broadcasters are being forced to take the absurdity seriously. Brownback's indecency bill is currently awaiting floor debate in the Senate. It's the one that could make Washington's definition of violent programming the law of the land, the one that would make poets or artists liable for a $500,000 fine for speaking in a manner unacceptable to Washington apparatchiks. In short, it is a blueprint for big-time censorship.

Equally as troubling are the industry's continuing efforts to anticipate that blueprint with their own do-it-yourself indecency-crackdown kit.

In the wake of its closed-door powwow with government last week, the NAB announced it would get the wheels turning on a new programming code. Then there was the National Cable & Telecommunications Association closed-door meeting with House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton and powerful Democrat Ed Markey about indecency and violence and what the industry could do to make them happier.

"Voluntary" does not exist in this climate. We don't care how many press releases are issued touting self-regulatory efforts. Washington has said jump. All that's left to be decided is how high is high enough.

This is the kind of regulation by raised eyebrow, of prior restraint by proxy, that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in the 1960s. But who can see the Constitution with all these gyrating young people in the way, swinging their hips, singing devil music, and showing off their body parts?

We joke, but we're not laughing. Legislators and regulators couldn't have made it clearer: They are going to crack down on performers, on stations, on language, and on whatever else they don't like. Self-regulation? They'll gladly take all the freedoms broadcasters want to give away to save their licenses.

As radio station owner and veteran free-speech soapbox orator Bill O'Shaughnessy said last week, there is a runaway train headed straight for the First Amendment.

Derail it. Now.

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