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Pornography, Free Speech and Children

Court Rejects Move to Limit Internet Access

WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 3, 2004 ( Efforts to protect children from Internet pornography received a setback with Tuesday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote, the court kept in place a federal district court decision blocking the enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, the New York Times said in a report the next day. The justices agreed with the lower court that the law probably violates the constitutional guarantee of free speech.

The law imposes heavy financial penalties on Internet sites that allow anyone under age 17 to obtain access to pornography. The law dates back six years, but has been blocked from coming into effect by a series of court cases. Opponents argue, among other things, that filters, and not criminal penalties, are a better way to resolve the problem of access by minors to pornography.

In fact, it is the third time the law has been considered by the Supreme Court, and the latest decision does not put an end to matter. The majority decision sent the case back to the lower courts for further consideration on the merits of the law.

In a comment issued the same day, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins criticized the decision saying: “This law does not impede the decisions of adults who seek to view pornographic material. It merely recognizes what’s common sense: We should concentrate on making it difficult for children to access porn rather than making it easier.”

In its arguments before the Supreme Court defending the law, the Family Research Council maintained that the government has a legitimate interest in maintaining a decent society and protecting children by restricting pornography. “Permitting a commercial onslaught of child obscenity to our children lacks any value worthy of protection,” the group said in a statement.

Marketing sex and violence

The dispute over Internet and pornography is part of a wider concern over the negative effects of a mass media that exposes children and adolescents to large doses of ever-more explicit content. The toxicity of popular culture was examined in the book “Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America’s Children,” edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph Viteritti, professors of education and public policy, respectively, at New York University.

In their introduction the editors noted that much of what is available to children through the mass media is beneficial and that television and the Internet offer access to a great deal of educational information. Nevertheless, children and adolescents are also “exposed to values that undermine good character.”

Media influence over young people has also grown due to the declining influence of institutions such as churches and schools in guiding behavior and forming young people. As well, many parents have abdicated their responsibility over what their children receive via the media. “When adults are reluctant to set norms concerning the difference between right and wrong, youngsters get the message that there is no difference,” note Ravitch and Viteritti.

Media exposure

In his chapter on the problems of teaching in a world dominated by popular culture, Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, observes that the media play an important role in influencing young people’s emotive states and aspirations. And even if adolescents are not always paying full attention to what they are seeing or hearing, they are exposed to the media for large amounts of time, Gitlin noted.

A survey cited by Gitlin calculates that a child’s daily media exposure averages 6 and a half hours daily. This varies according to age, with a peak of 8 hours in the age bracket of 8 to 13. Not surprisingly, 65% of those aged 8 to 18 have a television in their bedroom, 86% a radio, 75% a CD player, and 45% a video game player. And 42% of children from 2 to 18 live in households where the television is on all the time.

Gitlin comments that on the question of violence it is difficult to prove a direct causal relationship between media content and violent actions in real life. The violence seen in the media, however, does form part of the cognitive and emotional experiences of adolescents. “It may or may not teach the lesson that force pays or that human life is expendable, but even if it doesn’t, it teaches that violence is a routine recourse.”

The chapter by Stacy Smith and Ed Donnerstein also looks at the question of what blame can be attributed to the media. The two professors, from Michigan State University and the University of Arizona, respectively, admit that the media are only one factor in socializing young people. They do note, however, disturbing elements in the content offered.

They cite an extensive study that showed the way violence is portrayed. It is often glamorized, and the negative consequences of violence are rarely depicted. Violence is also routinely “sanatized and trivialized,” with over half of the violent interactions on television showing no physical pain for the individual. They also cite numerous studies demonstrating the ever-increasing presence of sex, and drug and alcohol use in the media, usually without any consideration of their negative consequences.

Smith and Donnerstein are less reluctant than Gitlin to attribute a link between the media and adolescent behavior, citing a number of studies that establish a close relationship on the amount of violent television programs seen and aggressive behavior. “Together, over forty years of social science research reveals that exposure to media violence can contribute to learning aggression, desensitization and fear,” they write.

Culture of obscenity

Smith and Donnerstein cite studies showing that up to 44% of teens have seen adult Internet sites. Moreover, search engines make it easy to access materials that were once difficult to obtain. With Internet, obtaining sexual content “is easier, faster, more anonymous, and likely to bring to your computer screen anything you want,” they comment.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, professor of history at Syracuse University, deals with the increasing vulgarity of the media. Sexual pornography is pervasive, she notes, and even popular culture suffers from “a kind of fundamental offensiveness, vulgarity, indecency, perversity and vacuity.”

She also objects to the cheap way sexuality is so often portrayed in the media. Sexual images are ubiquitous, and they are characterized by crassness, uniformity, trivialization and often bereft of any romantic element.

Lasch-Quinn draws attention to how women and girls are often portrayed in unrealistic ways in the media. The images and behavior exalted have played a part in promoting trends such as extreme thinness leading to eating disorders, body piercing and tattooing, and plastic surgery.

Peter Christenson, professor of communication at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, takes a look at popular music in the lives of youth. Styles such as rap and heavy metal, he observes, have come under heavy criticism for demeaning women and glorifying violence, drugs and racism.

Regarding sexual content, Christenson notes that the message, or images in the case of music videos, is not only provocative, but is often characterized by elements of gratification and exploitation.

Bringing up children, note Ravitch and Viteritti in the book’s introduction, “involves a conscious commitment to elevation of the mind, body, and spirit, not their degradation.” Parents should cultivate an appreciation for good literature, music, film and art, they recommend. Regardless of the law, it’s time parents took this responsibility more seriously.

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