Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Tribal Company

A few weeks ago, shortly after the FCC released its most recent report on TV violence, I wrote an essay arguing that any government-mandated a la carte regime imposed on cable and satellite operators as a means of addressing the violence issue almost certainly would violate the First Amendment. The piece, "The Constitution, A La Carte," was published on CNET on May 22.

On June 26 Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe testified at the Senate Commerce Committee's hearing on TV violence. Tribe, one of the country's foremost constitutional law scholars, retained in connection with his testimony by various media entities, concluded that all the proposals put forward by the FCC as a means of protecting children from exposure to violent programming --time channeling, a government-mandated ratings system, and mandatory a la carte unbundling--would contravene the First Amendment. You can find Professor Tribe's complete testimony here.

Having just written on the a la carte issue in my CNET essay, and given Professor Tribe's reputation, I was especially interested in his First Amendment analysis. Albeit at much greater length, and in more scholarly fashion, Professor's Tribe's constitutional analysis of the mandatory unbundling issue is fully consistent with my CNET piece. You can find the section on mandatory unbundling at pages 58-68. I was pleased --maybe, even relieved-- to find myself in good company.

Anyone interested in First Amendment jurisprudence, and especially its relationship to the TV violence issue, should read Tribe's entire paper. But here are a couple of salient quotes concerning the unconstitutionality of mandatory unbundling that mirror the views I expressed earlier:

  • "It is tempting to think of any unbundling requirement as a purely economic restriction not based on speech, but that view is flatly incorrect. Any unbundling requirement would be a speech-based and even a content-based regulation subject to strict scrutiny. The Supreme Court has recognized that “[c]able programmers and cable operators engage in and transmit speech, and they are entitled to the protection of the speech and press provisions of the First Amendment.” Turner Broadcasting Sys., Inc. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622, 636 (1994)."

  • "[C]able/satellite providers are no different from other speakers. A decision to combine or package expressive materials is a speech act distinct from the decisions to distribute its individual components, separately considered."

  • "Mandatory unbundling, however, raises distinct concerns because it directly intrudes on a cable operator's speech by precluding speech achievable only by combining channels. For example, a cable operator may wish to provide a public service by bundling C-SPAN or local public access channels with more popular fare such as ESPN. Similarly, a cable operator's decision to include adult channels--as much as another operator's decision to exclude those channels--is an exercise of core editorial discretion."

  • "Proponents of mandatory unbundling have at times suggested that unbundling can avoid strict scrutiny so long as it is only focused on the compensation that cable/satellite operators hope to receive, rather than the content that they are empowered to convey....Such a proposal cannot escape strict scrutiny. The freedom to speak is inseparable from the freedom to decide what to charge for that speech, or, instead, to distribute it without financial remuneration."

Upholding the First Amendment's free speech principles does not, and need not, imply endorsement of "violent" --or for that matter, "indecent" or any other-- programming that appears on television. In my view, there is much programming aired that is inappropriate for viewing by children. But government-imposed mandates that do violence to free speech principles are not the answer. Much more parental responsibility is.

As I wrote here last week, and as Professor Tribe too emphasizes, easy-to-use filtering tools are now available that allow parents to take control of what their children watch. To be sure, these tools may not be absolutely perfect or fail-safe in every situation, even as they are constantly being improved. But in First Amendment parlance, there surely are a "less restrictive means" of achieving whatever legitimate interest the government has in protecting children than those means inconsistent with free speech values.