Tuesday, May 12, 2009 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Jim Moran, Erectile Dysfunction, and Prudery Disguised as Policy

Grundyism: n. narrow-minded adherence to conventionality; prudery

There cannot be a word more apt to describe the growing zeitgeist among a certain class of would-be censors in Washington. The flash of Janet Jackson's nipple so outraged the FCC that it fined a broadcaster over half a million dollars. A similar sanction was levied for the utterance on television of a word that one will hear echo in the stands at most any live sporting event in America, a word that is commonplace on streets and playgrounds across the country. The prior FCC chairman was so shocked by the relatively uncultured programming on certain cable channels that he waged a four-year war on the cable industry, while the current Acting-Chairman of the FCC has made it no secret that he regards "rampant vulgarity, sexuality and gratuitous violence" to be pervasive in television programming.

For its part, Congress has not been unwilling to put its own delicate sensibilities on display, passing a law to increase the fines that the FCC may assess on broadcasters for airing "indecent" programming. And now the latest attack on broadcasting comes in the form of the "Families for ED Advertising Decency Act," H.R. 2175, introduced by Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA). If passed, H.R. 2175 would make it essentially illegal to run advertisements on broadcast television for medications that treat erectile dysfunction.

One can imagine Congressman Moran and his friends from the Parents Television Council - like grade-school children giggling at the use of words that describe bodily functions - counting the instances in which "erections" are mentioned in a given ad, or debating the Fellini-esque imagery of a man throwing a football through a tire-swing, and becoming enraged by the brazen assault on public morals that ED ads represent.

In truth, such reductive, overly-simplistic analysis (if the term might be stretched to include the blatantly political calculus underlying H.R. 2175) diminishes us as a society, potentially deprives some citizens of important medical information, and may further cripple the broadcasting industry - all under the banner of protecting children from harmful words.

Whatever sophomoric jokes might be made at the expense of ED ads, erectile dysfunction is a serious medical condition affecting substantial numbers of men. Aside from the mental and emotional strains that ED may put on individuals and relationships, it also is a warning sign of other - potentially life-threatening - conditions, including high-blood pressure, diabetes, and serious cardiac infirmities. Some might chuckle, but ED ads save lives.

Further, we do ourselves no favor by pretending that our children are such tender puppies. Children either are or are not ready to understand the full text and subtext of televised ED ads; parents can provide as much or as little additional information as they choose. Nothing in the ED ads is obviously misleading and there is no explicit discussion of sex or sex acts.

Indeed, what must bother Congressman Moran and the other Grundyists on Capitol Hill is not that the ads provide information that is new or somehow shocking to children, but that they find the ads embarrassing. Who can argue? But crimson cheeks are no warrant for censorship. The whole effort, of course, has been a misguided and transparent paean to puritanical orthodoxy. This new generation of Bowdlers in "black gowns, are making their rounds, and binding with briars, our joys and desires."

Meanwhile, as my colleague Adam Thierer has pointed out, programming that is insufficiently vapid and banal for the grey-hairs in Washington is migrating to new media beyond the jurisdiction of Big Brother's heavy-handed speech police - and viewers are following. Indeed, there is a certain sad irony in the fact that, as traditional media struggles to adapt to a world of increased competition, politicians make a show of handicapping broadcasters while simultaneously decrying their demise and their consequent inability to produce news and public service programming.

In the end, we are big enough as a society to handle televised ED ads, they provide potentially life-saving information to some, and outlawing them would unfairly target one sector of the media. H.R. 2175 is ill-considered and almost surely unconstitutional. Congress should move on to more pressing problems.

posted by W. Kenneth Ferree @ 10:34 AM | Capitol Hill , Free Speech , Mass Media