Tribe testifies before the Senate about the free speech implications of regulating TV programming

Harvard Law School Professor and constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe ’66 testified before a packed Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on June 26 about legislation proposed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller to regulate violent programming on television. Tribe warned against adopting the legislation in his testimony, saying it would violate free speech.

“Violent television programming is speech protected by the First Amendment,” Tribe stated in his written testimony. “Any attempt to regulate such protected speech will fail because it will be impossible to define ‘impermissible’ depictions of violence on television according to the strict constitutional requirements that govern law regulating speech.”

The hearing was held on the heels of a report issued by the FCC that called for more regulation of violent television programming. Concluding that that there is evidence that certain depictions of violence on television correlate with harmful effects on children, the report proposes three legislative solutions in order to limit the amount of violence children see on television.

Solutions proposed by the FCC include time channeling, which would ban some content during certain hours; a mandatory government-run ratings program to replace the current voluntary system; and mandatory a la carte cable programming, which would give consumers more choices to opt in or out of channels.

Currently, the FCC can fine broadcast channels for indecency, which it has been increasingly doing to little or no effect, but has no power to regulate violent programming.

As an expert of the First Amendment, Tribe was representing a coalition of studios and broadcast and cable companies, but stressed that his testimony was strictly limited to the constitutional validity of the various proposed regulations. In addition to his testimony, he also authored an op-ed on the subject entitled “Let parents hold the remote,” which was published in the Los Angeles Times on June 26.

Tribe is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and is the author of the foremost treatise on U.S. constitutional law.

To view a webcast of the hearing titled “Impact of Media Violence on Children,” please click here. Real Player required.