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The Inverted Standard of Censorship

Gary McGath

Mr. McGath, s computer programmer and free-lance writer in Hollis, New Hampshire, writes regularly for Ergo.

In the past year or so, a number of religious and conservative groups have been trying to discourage allegedly immoral television programs by promoting boycotts of the programs’ sponsors. Many commentators have denounced these proposed boycotts as acts of “censorship.”

Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children’s Television, says that “censorship . . . is what this movement is about, regardless of what they’re calling it.” James Rosenfield, president of CBS, calls boycotts a “technique of attempting to coerce the advertiser through threats and intimidation.”[1]

Yet a boycott is simply the exercise of free-market power—the power to deal with someone or not, according to one’s own choices. There is nothing coercive about a boycott; the only “threat” involved is the “threat” to take one’s money elsewhere.

The claim that a boycott is coercive rests on the unstated premise that the seller has a right to his market, and that the buyer is violating the seller’s rights by going elsewhere. But a “right to a market” is a contradiction in terms. If someone does not have the right not to buy something, the transaction is not a purchase, but a forced exchange; a sale takes place only if both sides are acting by their own choice.

To be precise, a sponsor boycott is a “secondary boycott”—that is, a boycott designed to influence the actions of a third party. In this case, the boycott of the sponsors is intended to influence the producers of TV shows by undercutting their financial support. Secondary boycotts are unpopular, even among some people who otherwise support a free economy. Dr. Sylvester Petro, for example, has called the secondary boycott a “predatory oppressive practice.”[2] But the right to decide how to spend one’s money cannot depend on the purpose which the spender is trying to achieve. If a person does not wish to buy a product because he believes that buying it will indirectly promote immorality, it is his right not to buy it. If he tries to convince others that his decision is correct and that they should join him in avoiding that product, it is his right to do so.

Whether the boycotters’ standards are correct is a separate issue. “Sex and violence” are the principal evils denounced by the advocates of a boycott. It can certainly be argued that there is something wrong with a moral code that regards sex as evil, and that lumps murder together with the punishment of murder as “violence.” It can be argued that people who are concerned with morality on television shows would be better off to concern themselves with the ideas promoted by the shows rather than with the number of fist-fights and low necklines that are presented. And it can be argued that urging people to simply shut off objectionable programs would be a more direct approach to the issue than boycotting sponsors.

But criticisms such as these are legitimate only when it is recognized that every person has the right to take whatever non-coercive actions he chooses. The distinction between having a right to do something and being right is vital in this case.

Seeing the Problem

It is possible that some of those who call boycotts “censorship” are expressing doubt about the boycotters’ commitment to a free-market method. It is true that opponents of sex and violence in entertainment have frequently enlisted governmental help in enforcing their views. For example, Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority, while calling for a voluntary boycott of broadcast television, has encouraged district attorneys to seek legal regulation of cable television programs.[3] But if these inconsistencies are the real object of the critics’ concern, they should be pointing out the inconsistencies and stating that the resort to governmental action, not the voluntary boycott, is an attempt at censorship.

Moreover, if governmental censorship is anyone’s actual concern, it already exists, not as a threat but as an ongoing occurrence. Under Federal law, the government can shut any broadcaster down simply by taking away or refusing to renew its license. For example, a broadcasting company is not free to decide which views it will promote; if it gives air time to a particular view, it must give equal time to proponents of the opposite view. More vaguely, and therefore more dangerously, a broadcaster is required to promote the “public interest.” If the FCC decides that a station has not acted sufficiently in the “public interest,” the station can be taken off the air, even though it has not been found guilty of any specific offense.

Judging Past Conduct

Why is this governmental control not denounced as “censorship”? One answer that has seriously been offered is that censorship means only restraint of material that has been scrutinized in advance of its release, and that shutting down a station for what it has broadcast in the past is therefore not censorship. In upholding the non-renewal of KFKB’s license, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals stated:

There has been no attempt on the part of the Commission to subject any part of appellant’s broadcasting matter to scrutiny prior to its release. In considering the question whether the public interest, convenience, or necessity will be served by a renewal of appellant’s license, the Commission has merely exercised its undoubted right to take note of appellant’s past conduct, which is not censorship.[4]

We may all be greatly relieved to know that when Russia jails dissidents or South Africa shuts down newspapers, they are not engaging in censorship, since they are simply “taking note of past conduct.”

But if this standard is applied, boycotts are not “censorship” either, since they are based on the past conduct of broadcasters and sponsors. This definition of censorship by nonessentials is not a serious criterion for anyone, but a screen for a view of censorship that is even harder to put over: that voluntary action to influence a medium is censorship, but that governmental control over a medium is not. This view was expressed with unusual clarity by FCC head Newton Minow when he spoke to the Conference on Freedom and Responsibility in Broadcasting in Chicago on August 3, 1961:

Naturally our concern here is with two special limitations on censorship: the First Amendment, which prohibits abridgement by the government of freedom of speech, and section 326 of the Communications Act, which very wisely proscribes any censorship by the Federal Communications Commission.

I am going to explore these at length—but first I want to make an admission against somebody else’s interest—there is much censorship—even as it is defined here—there is much censorship in broadcasting today. It is as much to be examined, spotlighted and at times deplored as any form of censorship by a government agency. And since it is done by our own governmental licensees every broadcast day, it violates the spirit of the First Amendment and Section 326 of the Act just as surely as if we had done it ourselves.

The censorship I speak of here takes two forms. First is rating censorship—a result of the almost desperate compulsion of some of our licensees to work and to plan and to live by the numbers, always striving to reach the largest possible audience in order to attract and hold the mass advertising dollar. At best, only the majority interest can be served here and the interests of massive minorities are badly served; and the public interest again is trampled.

. . . The other form of censorship I speak of is what Clare Boothe Luce has called “dollar censorship.” Here the broadcast licensee simply abdicates his own judgment and turns programming decisions over to an advertiser or his agency.[5]

Here we have the inversion at its fullest. By defining censorship not as force, but as control over material prior to its release, Minow makes the broadcasters guilty of censorship by the very fact that they are broadcasters, and makes the government innocent of censorship by virtue of the fact that it does not see the programs prior to their release.

At this point, it is necessary to briefly answer the argument that since broadcast frequencies exist in a limited quantity, government control over the use of those frequencies is justified. Everything exists in a limited quantity, including paper and ink for newspapers and cables for non-broadcast communications. It is this very fact that makes private property necessary. The government’s proper role is not to seize control of something because it is finite, but to establish the legal basis for guaranteeing property rights. In the case of television, this could have meant some sort of “homesteading” for frequencies; today, it should mean recognizing the property rights of broadcasters to the frequencies they are using over a given geographic area.

Censorship Exercised in Licensing Procedures

Someone might have asked Mr. Minow: isn’t the government’s power to take away a station’s license a power of censorship? On the contrary, says Minow; the fact that the government has this power makes the station’s decisions “censorship.” The logic is that since they are licensed by the government, they are subject to whatever restrictions (such as the First Amendment) are placed on the government.

Isn’t the free market best served by letting stations broadcast whatever they want, since they must broadcast what people want in order to make money? Yes, says Minow, and that is why they shouldn’t have that freedom. The free market would give the greatest number of television viewers what they wanted, and would not permit “massive minorities” to dictate the content of the shows; therefore, according to Mi- now, the broadcasters must be regulated. A free market is “dollar censorship.”

And this brings us back to the issue of boycotts. We often hear that a person does not have true freedom of speech or freedom of the press if he does not have the means to exercise his freedom—that freedom of the press requires someone to provide him with a press for his own uses. This view of freedom, which confuses freedom with ability and rights with claims upon others, has traditionally been used on behalf of unpublished writers and unfinanced publishers. But the critics of “dollar censorship” are taking it to its logical conclusion and applying it to the sponsors and producers of TV shows.

Minow regards advertisers as the parties guilty of “dollar censorship.” By failing to pay for shows that would not give their products sufficient exposure, they are allegedly depriving the shows’ producers of their “freedom” to have their shows presented. The opponents of the boycott, though, realize that sponsors cannot afford to take losses indefinitely, and that it’s their customers who have to be considered guilty of censorship if “freedom” requires being provided with means.

The implications of defining censorship and freedom in this way are dangerously broad. If the boycotters are guilty of censorship when they decline to buy sponsors’ products, then the rest of us are guilty of the same crime when we buy products that we have seen advertised, rather than products advertised on shows which we have decided not to see, or when we buy one magazine and not another at a newsstand. In every such case, we are failing to provide someone with the financial support that he may need to continue broadcasting or publishing; we are engaging in “dollar censorship.”

The danger in the inverted standard of censorship is that we will be forced, in the name of “freedom,” to pay for publications and broadcasts whether we want to or not. In fact, we are already forced to pay for governmental subsidies to public television and to the arts. The logical conclusion to which these subsidies could be carried is complete governmental control of the broadcast and publications media, with subsidies available only to those who meet the government’s criteria, and with charges of “censorship” being levelled against anyone who tries to spend money on broadcasts and publications of his own choice. The United States is still a long way from this sort of totalitarian “freedom,” but this is the actual state of affairs in many countries today. If we want to preserve freedom of speech here, we must not be silent when freedom is attacked in its own name.

1.   Ron Powers, “The New ‘Holy War’ Against Sex and Violence,” TV Guide, April 18, 1981.

2.   Sylvester Petro, “Do Antitrust Laws Preserve Competition?”, The Freeman, April 1981.

3.   Janet Neiman, “Boycott? 2 Leaders Disagree,” Advertising Age, April 27, 1981.

4.   Newton Minow, Equal Time: The Private Broadcaster and the Public Interest (Atheneum, 1964), p. 82.

5.   Ibid., pp. 74-75.

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