Saturday, January 30, 2010

Free Speech Isn't Always Easy To Sort Out

I had a Facebook dialogue prompt this post, centering on Super Bowl ads for CBS' broadcast, where in one case, perfectly good money was refused because of one controversial message, and in another, a different controversial message will be aired. From a Christian Science Monitor article:

Working in a tough advertising climate, CBS surprised many Americans by explaining a new policy on advocacy ads after news emerged that it had agreed to show an antiabortion ad featuring Florida QB Tim Tebow and his mom, Pam.

That decision caused an uproar over the ad itself, the sponsor (the conservative organization Focus on the Family), and the prospect of politics seeping into a three-hour block where most Americans are trying to escape from the daily grind.

But after CBS on Friday rejected a potentially controversial ad from ManCrunch, a Toronto-based gay dating site, it opened itself up for criticism – which came fast and furious. The so-called “man-kiss ad” shows two football fans touching hands over a bowl of potato chips, which then leads, as the ad implies, to a make-out session."

CBS has a problem when they do something like this at the same time as they allow an anti-gay group like Focus on the Family to place ads during the Super Bowl,” says Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD.) “This network should come clean to the public about what's going on because this seems to be a homophobic double standard."

Well, of course it's a double standard. Interested parties certainly should be unhappy with CBS. Complain loudly if you don't like it. Just don't call it censorship or an affront to free speech.

As owner of their channel, CBS has every right in the world to air, or not air, anything it chooses. They have the right to display any bias they wish with their advertising. That is genuine free speech, when the owner of the medium decides. Indeed, the worst case scenario would be that CBS was made to air an ad it didn't wish to. That's worse than censorship. That's fascism, literally, where one owns a property, but is dictated as to its' use.

As for me, I would love to see other broadcast stations take up the ad. Sure, it's not the same as advertising to the largest TV audience of the year. At the same time, the rejection has generated some buzz that would-be advertisers don't usually enjoy more than a week before the big game.

So, here's what all the fuss is about:

Just doing my part to show that ManCrunch hasn't been censored. Gratis.

(The most objectionable part is showing a Packer and Viking fan embracing. Everyone knows that would never happen.)

Update: Apparently, there is an ad that should be every bit as controversial as these, courtesy of Bud Light. Check out this Reason blog post.


Doug said...

Just to pick a nit, it is censorship - just not government censorship. (And it's government censorship with which the First Amendment is concerned.)

That pedantic detail out of the way, I'd say the landscape is a little different when we're talking about CBS - at least in its broadcast capacity. CBS is the beneficiary of a government imposed monopoly on broadcast frequencies. (Not exactly the "owner" of the channel, I guess I would argue.)

Other would-be speakers can't simply fire up the transmitter and broadcast speech of their choice on the same frequencies. So, because the government is actively preventing other speakers from speaking in that fashion, I'd say the rules are a little different for broadcasters.

Mike Kole said...

I'll take your point there on private vs. government censorship.

Now I'll counter with a similar distinction on monopoly. It a) isn't a monopoly, else there would be one station; and b) can't emphasize 'government imposed' enough. There is no good reason that I can think of to artificially limit frequencies. Sure, one doesn't want crazy interference such that nobody's signal is picked up, but it would be better in my opinion to treat frequencies more like real estate- recognize rightful claims to established frequencies and prevent interference in much the same way government would rightly intervene on behalf of a homeowner against a squatter.

Doug said...

Treating broadcast spectrum as real estate makes some sense, but it gets to fundamental questions of ownership (which would affect real estate, except the decisions were made so long ago.) Who gets to decide that CBS owns frequency X and on what basis?

200 years ago, nobody was using the frequency. Then, there was a period when it was a free for all. Then the government stepped in and cleared out the settlers and opened it up for interests with more money. Now, they'll lock you up if you are too insistent about interfering with those interests. (Or maybe I just watched "Pump up the Volume" one too many times.)

In any event, with real estate, it was probably appropriated in similar fashion by government before it was sold off to acquire a proper chain of title. Now no one really thinks the original acquisition by the government should have much bearing on how the private owner uses real estate.

But, because the acquisition of broadcast spectrum was a little more recent, there is still the notion that broadcasters are just leasing the spectrum from "the public" with strings attached.

(Not really sure I have a point. Just thought I'd offer the thoughts.)