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Censoring Foetuses

In the US, Randall Terry is challenging Obama for Democratic leadership. Strangely, his reason for doing so is in order to be able to show graphic anti-abortion adverts  featuring aborted foetuses, holocaust victims, and a black person being lynched.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates US television channels and disciplines them if they show unsuitable material before the watershed. This includes images of aborted foetuses. In practice, it is not usually necessary for the FCC to take measures to keep graphic anti-abortion adverts off the TV, since the fact that viewers don’t like seeing such images means that broadcasters are very hesitant to risk people changing the channel by showing them. But in the run up to elections broadcasters no longer have a choice. Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934 states that during a 45 day period before a primary, and a 60 day period before a general election, if a broadcaster shows an advert from any candidate, they must show adverts from all candidates who apply (and can pay). Importantly, broadcasters are not allowed to censor those adverts in any way. In the past, political adverts containing obscene material were shown only after the watershed (which is at 10pm in the US). However, in 1996 a complaint was made by the makers of such an advert, and the DC Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the FCC ruling that channels were allowed to put such adverts off until after 10pm. Therefore, broadcasters are now obliged to show adverts by political candidates uncensored, and at any time of the day. Randall Terry is exploiting this law by standing for political office purely in order to show adverts which would ordinarily be deemed too graphic to air. In particular, he would like to show them during the Super Bowl, which in certain districts falls within the period of 45 days leading up to a primary. As well as using this law to show graphic anti-abortion adverts, a channel could be made to show pornography at any time of the day, if it were part of a political campaign advert. What should our attitude be to the fact that the usual censorship rules for advertising are suspended for political adverts, and in particular, about the anti-abortion adverts shown by Terry?

To answer that question, we should start by asking what the reasoning behind the decision to suspend the censorship rules might be. Presumably, a defence of the decision would make reference to free speech. But we do not usually think that leaving adverts uncensored is crucial in order to protect free speech. Why are the rules different in this case?

One reason might be the importance of giving equal consideration to each of the candidates. Perhaps we would be unfairly infringing on their rights if we were not to allow them to get their full message across. However, they are already working within particular restrictions, such as funding – TV channels are not obliged to provide free coverage for all candidates, only to show adverts paid for. Despite that restriction, the system is believed to be fair because it applies to all candidates equally. A restriction which required candidates to keep their adverts free from obscene or offensive content would likewise apply to all candidates equally, and therefore seem to be fair. There would be some restrictions of this nature which would be unfair – for example ones which required the candidates to keep their adverts free from right wing opinions. But the restriction preventing obscene and offensive content does not seen to be partisan in the way that the latter restriction is – it is more similar to restricting advertising to only those who can pay.

A more plausible reason for preventing censorship in these special circumstances is that doing so is in viewers’ interests. The thought may be that the more information voters have, the better their decisions will be, and therefore it is important for adverts to be uncensored. If that is the reason for the regulation, is it justified?

If the aim of temporarily disallowing censorship is to benefit viewers, one important factor in determining whether it is justifiable is the usefulness of the material which would otherwise be censored. If a politician could not get their message across without that material, for example, the benefit to the viewers of seeing it might be significant. In the case of the anti-abortion adverts in question, it does not seem that there is any information conveyed by the graphic images which could not have been conveyed without them, however.

Proponents of Terry’s adverts may argue that images are necessary in order to fully inform voters because the very fact that people find them shocking and repulsive shows that abortion is grossly immoral. However, just because people find certain images shocking and distasteful, does not mean that those images depict immorality. Most people would find images of particular medical procedures disturbing, despite the fact that they believe the doctors to be acting entirely morally. Therefore, it does not seem to be useful to the public to allow graphic images such as those in Terry’s adverts to be shown – Terry’s views could be accurately presented to voters without them.

There does not seem to be good reason to allow obscene images in campaign adverts, but is there reason not to? One reason not to is people’s dislike of seeing such images. Mere dislike may not seem to provide a strong reason against showing the adverts. But it is the dislike of huge numbers of people, and some people’s distress may be intense. Therefore, this does provide a strong reason against allowing such images in adverts.

A second reason against allowing the adverts to be aired is that children may be exposed to the disturbing images. Anti-abortion activists often claim that if we allow abortions to take place, we must believe that it is acceptable to show images of it, even to children. For example, Abort67 implies this both verbally in its justification for using graphic images on placards, and by its uploading those images onto family friendly websites such as Facebook (despite that seeming to be in gross violation of Facebook’s policies). However, it is not true that we think it acceptable for children to see images of any behaviour which is morally allowable. For example, we do not allow children to see sexually explicit images.

There seems to be little reason in favour of suspending censorship for campaign adverts, and significant reason against doing so. Hopefully the law will be altered before the advertising becomes any more gory or obscene.

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