Senate committee considers television, Internet restrictions

Thursday, May 20, 1999

Looking for legislative answers to issues highlighted by last month's Colorado shooting, the Senate Commerce Committee this week heard debate on a bill that would restrict violent television programming and another that would require schools receiving federal technology dollars to install Internet filters on their computers.

“If recent tragedies teach us anything, they teach us that allowing our children to become acculturated to amoral, gratuitous violence will destroy the foundations of our culture,” said Sen. John McCain, the committee's chairman.

“But these recent tragedies also show that changing the culture of violence won't be easy,” the Arizona Republican said during a May 18 hearing on the Children's Protection from Violent Programming Act. “Assuming these new responsibilities will require us to face up to current problems unblinkingly and address them realistically.”

Some lawmakers say the two bills currently before the committee are designed to do just that. In addition to the May 18 hearing, the committee heard testimony today on the Children's Internet Protection Act.

Introduced last January by McCain and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the Internet bill would require schools and libraries that use federal technology funds to purchase and use filtering software. The measure has received support from groups who say the bill will not only curb students' access to violent sites but to hate sites as well.

“The Internet generation, unfortunately, has been seriously infected by the virus of hate,” said Howard Berkowitz, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, during today's hearing. “Not only is this virus present on the Net, today it is being spread around the globe in the wink of an eye or, more accurately, with the click of a mouse.”

The violent-programming bill, introduced by Hollings soon after the Colorado shooting, would encourage the Federal Communications Commission to confine broadcasts of violent television programs to hours when children are least likely to be watching.

The Senate last week rejected the bill 60 to 39 as an amendment to a juvenile-crime bill.

Although co-sponsors on the Internet bill, McCain split with Hollings over the effort to create a “safe harbor” on television, saying it would never pass constitutional muster.

Specifically, McCain says the bill demonstrates the difficulty in defining violence and in determining when children are least likely to be among the viewing audience. He says other innovations are available to enable parents to monitor their children's viewing.

“The availability of the V-chip and Internet blocking and filtering technology put to rest any notion that the 'safe harbor' approach is the only effective and least governmentally intrusive way of controlling children's access to violent material on TV or the Internet,”
McCain said.

Dale Kunkel, a University of California at Santa Barbara researcher who led a three-year National Television Violence Study sponsored by the cable industry, disagrees. He and James Hamilton of Duke University told the Senate panel that research proves most television programming contains violence and that the entertainment industry often directs it to a young audience.

“When coupled with the extensive body of evidence documenting these harmful effects, the NTVS research establishes a compelling government interest in reducing children's exposure to the violent portrayals most commonly found in television,” Kunkel said.

He said relying solely on the V-chip — a television device designed to block rated programs — could hinder efforts to keep children from watching violent programs because the industry often doesn't tag shows with violent content.

Kunkel says the “safe harbor” approach shows promise because the courts have deemed government restrictions that forbid indecent programs during certain hours to be constitutional.

But First Amendment scholar Robert Corn-Revere says the U.S. Supreme Court has been unwilling to approve government's authority to regulate violent expression differently than other protected speech. He noted that in a 1948 case, Winters v. New York, the court invalidated a state law curbing the publication of magazines “devoted principally to criminal news and stories of bloodshed, lust or crime.”

Corn-Revere, a former FCC counsel, told the committee that the bill also was problematic because it attempted to offer some exemptions.

“It is sufficient to note that it would be all but impossible to draft a law that would effectively distinguish between 'NYPD Blue' and 'Walker, Texas Ranger' that would permit one program to be aired and require the other to be banned,” Corn-Revere said. “The alternative would simply to ban all portrayals of violence, a solution that would destroy the village in order to save it.”

The committee has yet to vote on either bill.