Volume 85, Number 4

October 2010

The Bogeyman of “Harm to Children”: Evaluating the Government Interest Behind Broadcast Indecency Regulation

Jessica C. Collins

Although the government’s interest in preventing harm to children has played a central role in justifying regulation of broadcast indecency by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), courts generally have failed to examine this asserted interest. In this Note, I argue that this failure has added great uncertainty to indecency regulation and that more thorough consideration of this interest may provide greater clarity on the boundaries of permissible speech. I first review the doctrinal history of the regulation of indecency, both within broadcasting and in other media, to demonstrate that the interest in preventing harm to children, though a central justification of the regulatory scheme, has been ill defined. I then examine the recent case of FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. to illustrate that the vagueness of the current FCC indecency standard raises constitutional concerns. I contend that the vagueness may derive, at least in part, from courts’ failure to identify the type of harm to children that the government seeks to prevent through restrictions on indecent speech. Although the FCC’s structure may be inapt for identifying speech that is harmful to children, courts should undertake an investigation into the nature of the harm that indecency regulation seeks to prevent in order to provide limits on the scope of government authority. In the final Part, I therefore analyze five potential government interests, each stemming from a distinct potential harm that indecent broadcasting may create, and demonstrate how identifying the harm that indecency regulation is trying to address may restrict and define the scope of permissible government action.