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Jewish World ReviewMay 25, 2000 / 20 Iyar, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Consumer Reports


High court to parents: Raising kids these days is too easy -- AS IF BEING A GOOD PARENT were not already one of the most difficult jobs in America, the U.S. Supreme Court this week decided to make the job harder yet. In a 5-4 decision, the court struck down a provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which forbids cable television companies from sending pornographic programs or channels into subscribers' homes between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., unless the companies can completely block the signals from being transmitted to subscribers who have not ordered them.

Under the law, adults who want to obtain pornographic channels may order them from cable or satellite companies, but those who do not want to receive them may have the channels "blocked." This provision remains unchanged by the court. The problem, however, is the technical difficulty of effectively blocking sexually explicit images and audio, which sometimes "bleed" onto television screens, anyway. Cable companies often use cheap and imperfect blocking technology, either by design -- to entice new viewers -- or because it is uneconomical to do otherwise. Therefore, a television set tuned to the "blocked" channel may still pick up, intermittently, both pictures and sounds of whatever happens to be on at that moment.

So, what might youngsters happen across while channel surfing? Well, Playboy channel, for example, describes its programming as depicting "female/masturbation," "girl/girl sex" and "oral sex/ cunnilingus." And Playboy may not be the worst.

In enacting the 1996 telecommunication law, Congress set out to protect children from this material, while not unduly restricting adults from obtaining pornography if they want it. Congress gave cable companies a choice: They could either use sophisticated technology to ensure both pictures and audio were fully blocked from subscribers who did not want to receive them, or they could restrict transmission of pornography to after 10 p.m. and before 6 a.m.

But these sensible restrictions were too much for the court, which decided the rules placed an undue burden on cable companies and pornographers. So, now, the court has struck them down, leaving parents no protection for their children, and tying Congress' hands to devise realistic alternatives.

Is it any wonder that parents feel besieged by forces beyond their control or influence? It has become increasingly difficult -- no, make that virtually impossible -- for parents to protect their children from the sex and violence that permeate our culture. It is everywhere. Scantily-clad or nude images appear on billboards and magazine covers, in newspaper advertisements and catalogs. Even network fare during the early evening hours makes sexual innuendo and repartee the staple of most sitcoms. And now, it's not only this soft-core material that will bombard homes, but the really vile stuff, too.

In a biting dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer notes that some 22 million American children may be affected by this decision. The First Amendment doesn't protect the right of a man to stand up in the middle of a crowded theater and shout "fire" when there is none. It doesn't protect the right of companies to make false and misleading claims on behalf of their products.

It doesn't protect the rights of political candidates (or anyone else) from using a bullhorn in a residential neighborhood at 3 a.m. So, why does the First Amendment not allow Congress to restrict sexually prurient cable programming to the hours when most of these 22 million children will be fast asleep?

"Congress has taken seriously the importance of maintaining adult access to the sexually explicit channels here at issue," Breyer writes. "It has tailored the restrictions to minimize their impact upon adults, while offering parents help in keeping unwanted transmissions from their children. By finding 'adequate alternatives' (to these restrictions) where there are none, the Court reduces Congress' protective power to the vanishing point. This is not what the First Amendment demands."

Indeed not. Once again, the Supreme Court has behaved in imperious fashion, making law and defining rights where they do not exist. And America's families will be forever the worse for it.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate