Federal regulators and members of Congress say they hope to clamp down on broadcast violence and require more programming for children by taking advantage of a recent court decision that upheld restrictions on indecent programs on television and radio.
"Clearly, a record can be made that violent content on television is more dangerous to children than indecency," Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said last week.
By the same token, he said, the new court ruling provides a logic for requiring a television station to provide a specific minimum amount of "positive" programming for children.
In Congress, lawmakers are pushing ahead with bills aimed at curbing violence on television. The Senate Commerce Committee plans to hold a hearing on Wednesday on several of those measures.
One, sponsored by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., a member of the committee, would prohibit a television station from carrying violent programs at times when children are believed to be watching.
Broadcasters and civil liberties groups attacked the efforts of both the commission and Congress.
The new efforts mark a curious twist in what had largely been a campaign by conservatives to clamp down on sex over the airwaves.
The commission imposed its indecency restrictions in response to legislation sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. But it is now Democrats like Mr. Hundt who have applied the court ruling to their own agenda.
"All of a sudden, it's not just conservatives who want to censor content," said Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television, a nonprofit advocacy group.
"Now that it's violence, it's the liberals who want to censor speech," said Ms. Charren, who has been a longtime opponent of the indecency restrictions. "Every political persuasion has something they want to get off the screen."
Aides to Mr. Hollings noted that his bill to block violent programs during most of the day is closely modeled on the regulations against "indecency" that were validated late last month in a decision by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Under those regulations, television and radio broadcasters are prohibited from carrying programming that includes "patently offensive" depictions of sexual activity or organs between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Moreover, the court made it clear that the FCC was probably within its rights in blocking such programming until midnight.
The Hollings bill would require the commission to do the same thing for violent programming that "has been shown to be harmful to children."
Mr. Hundt, speaking to a group of reporters late last week, said the court ruling left no doubt that the government had the constitutional right to enact a curb on violent programming.
"It calls on us to take another look at the assumptions we have about the First Amendment," Mr. Hundt said.
Under Mr. Hundt, the commission has already asked for comment on a plan that would require television stations to carry at least three hours a week of educational television for children.
The plan would let a station "trade" two of those three hours by paying another station in the same market to take on the responsibility.
But commercial television broadcasters are fighting the idea, saying it would violate the constitutional rights of free speech. Several of the FCC's five commissioners are adamantly opposed to the idea as well, said agency officials.
Broadcasters and civil rights advocates attacked the statements made by Mr. Hundt.
"Censorship is a 19th-century concept that they are trying to apply to the 21st century," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project, a non-profit organization.
"More speech is better and less speech is worse. Mr. Hundt doesn't seem to make the distinction."
Steve Bookshester, associate general counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters, said Mr. Hundt was wrong to make the jump from restrictions on indecency to topics like violence.
"There's a big distinction between the sexual matter at issue here and violence," he said, noting that the courts had addressed indecency and obscenity in many different cases.
Violence, Mr. Bookshester cautioned, could prove to be a murkier subject.
"If one cartoon character hits another one, is that violence?" he asked. "What about news? What do you do about that?"
The prospect for Congressional passage of new legislation on violent programming remains unclear. Aides on the Senate Commerce Committee said they had begun planning this week's hearing before the court decision, largely to accommodate the wishes of Mr. Hollings.
A broad telecommunications bill recently passed by the Senate would act on two related fronts. One provision would require television manufacturers to install a new computer chip that would be able to block programming that has been tagged by broadcasters with a special signal.
A separate provision would impose heavy fines and jail terms on people who transmitted indecent or obscene material over computer networks.
But Republicans are divided over the wisdom of these ideas. Speaker Newt Gingrich strongly opposes the restrictions on indecency over the Internet, and other House Republicans are drawing up a more permissive alternative to the Senate bill.