think tank

Looking for new leader in war on free speech

Read it. Go ahead. It won't hurt you. Read it: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

It can't be called ironic. A coincidence, maybe. I was sitting in a conference room at the FCC waiting once again for some interminable period of time for FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to make an appearance to explain the commission's latest reasons for the government to regulate speech. At the time, I was feeling very, very sick and I had just heard that Jack Valenti was on his deathbed.

As I listened somewhat respectfully as Martin explained why an agency seemingly with no heart — as if any government agency actually has one — has to have the power to regulate violent content, my thoughts turned to Jack about as frequently as my stomach turned. Here and now, when we need him most, the best First Amendment fighter was dying. He was dead the next day.

I've written so much about Jack in the years I've been doing this gig, that I don't want to make this all about him. But who is going to take his place as our constitutional rights are under attack like never before? It should be simple, but it's not. There is no one now who has the stature and the gravitas to stand up to the people who want to twist the Constitution so that it looses all meaning. Jack did, and now he's gone.

I listened to Martin, a Republican, tell me that he wants to regulate content to protect children. I listened as he told me that no less an authority than the Surgeon General of the United States has determined that televised violence is bad for kids. There's only one problem with that: It's not what Surgeon General David Satcher said in his 2001 report.

I've heard of taking things out of context. Reporters get accused of that all the time. Hell, I do it everyday. You could say that, because I lifted the First Amendment out of the Bill of Rights to start this little missive, I did it here. It's a bit more than just taking something out of context for Martin to say Satcher's report gives him the evidence he needs to regulate speech.

It's not what Satcher said at all. One small part in the report says TV violence could have some short-term impact, but the general findings of the report say the exact opposite. I was there when the report was released at the Department of Health and Human Services building. I remember that day well, probably better than I remember last week, as I didn't have food poisoning then. Here's what Satcher said in 2001: "Taken together, findings suggest that media violence has a relatively small impact on violence."

While the report does find that media-portrayed violence has some tendency to increase aggressive behavior in some "small to moderate" fashion, Satcher said, "We clearly associate media violence to aggressive behavior. But the impact was very small compared to other things."

The report found that the real root causes of violence aren't Tom and Jerry cartoons or "24," but rather guns, gangs and drugs.

"Some may not be happy with that, but that's where the science is," Satcher said (HR 1/18/01).

Will expert findings slow the government juggernaut aimed at speech control? Probably not, especially since our best freedom fighter has fallen.