"The media should be...bringing vibrant and interesting voices and views into our homes,' not worrying that "an inadvertent slip is going to land them in trouble with regulators," Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told a Washington media crowd at The Media Institute's awards dinner Tuesday night.
Leahy was presenting a free speech award to News Corp. President/COO Peter Chernin, who Leahy called a true champion of the First Amendment. He congratulated Chernin for his stand against "a rigid and unyielding application of so-called indecency rules at the Federal Communications Commission."
Leahy said that while he does not want 'TV screens and radio shows filled with offensive and innapropriate words and images," he also said he had discovered that "there is an on/off switch," and suggested that was an important content contol technology. He also put in a plug for the V-chip/ratings system.
The senator said he believed "Strongly" that it was the role of parents, not government regulators, "to determine what is appropriate for children to see and hear."
"Good lord, where are we in this country," Leahy said after recounting the story of NBC affiliates afraid to show an episode of ER about breast cancer because they feared a brief depiction of a woman's breast would get them in trouble with the FCC.
That skittishmess by NBC affiliates came not long after the Janet Jackson CBS Super Bowl halftime reveal in 2004, an incident that helped fuel the FCC's crackdown on fleeting images and words.
Leahy said the he could not stand for "a system of censorship that takes no account of context, exercises no judgment, and slaps massive fines on brief, often unexpected instances of foul language or brief nudity."
He said he knew of well-intentioned folks who give speeches about supporting clean TV, but that they don't recognize the problems that causes for news organizations. "Dare the news organizations risk live coverage of a war zone," he asked, "and the bad language they hear." He said live coverage of sporting events, especially when a team is losing, "may carry a very similar risk."
Leahy had a message for those who preach diversity, as do many at the FCC. That was that diversity of voices begins with tolerance of speech rights.
Leahy said his father, who began a printing business, told him: "Pay attention to the First Amendment. Everything we want for Democracy is in there. It allows us to practice any religion we want or no religion. It allows us to say what we want. And if you guarantee that you guarantee diversity. And if you guarantee diversity, you guarantee Democracy," said Leahy.
Fox Broadcasting is preparing for oral argument in the Supreme Court Nov. 4 in the FCC's appeal of Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision that the commission was arbitrary and capricious in its indecency finding against Fox stations for swearing in a Billboard awards broadcast.
Leahy pointd out that the court had cited some four-letter words "outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney" had for Leahy on the Senate floor to suggest that such language was not unfamiliar to Washington ears. Leahy pointed out that he had soon after been sworn in for a sixth term as senator and that it was "better to be sworn in than sworn at."