Decency is a concept much debated but not easily defined, even by a simple dictionary. The Encarta dictionary on my desktop defines it as "behavior or an attitude that conforms to the commonly accepted standards of what is right and respectable."
For me, this is a definition that creates more questions than it answers: right according to whom? Respectable according to whom? And who gets to set these so-called standards?
Well, regarding the media, the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on this definition of decency a few times in the last century. Though their reluctant intervention always fails to render the debate any less hazy, there is one factor that seems to be a constant consideration: children.
It was FCC v. Pacifica of 1978 in which the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s right to enforce somewhat strict guidelines for the broadcast of obscene or indecent material. Basically stated, the opinion of the court held that due to the pervasive nature of broadcast media – its ability to enter into one’s home with or without their consent – the government had a legitimate administrative interest in protecting children from exposure to broadcast content that could be considered "patently offensive, indecent or obscene" according to accepted community standards. Children and homes are the operative terms here, with communities being defined under the law as states.
However, there are modern crusaders fighting for their own definition of decency – organizations like Standing for Decency, a local collection of self-righteous college students who made news by bullying Gold’s Gym into removing certain movies and music-videos from their viewing screens. People like these would probably argue that materials which they find patently offensive, indecent, or obscene really have no place in the public sphere, serve no public good, and, therefore, need not exist at all.
They may even go so far as to claim that what is not suitable for children should not be considered suitable for anyone. You know, the old "except ye be converted, blah, blah, blah, and become as little children, something, something, something" line. And this stance would be wrong. I dare say absurd, simplistic – insipid, even.
By the way, children are not allowed in the workout areas at Gold’s Gyms.
The concept of tolerating speech – whether people find it appealing or constructive, and whether that speech appears as print, broadcast or Internet media – is at the very foundation of First Amendment theory, and was addressed at length by philosophers like Locke, Milton and Mill. It suffices to say that their works exceed the scope of this article. So, for now, I will loosely paraphrase: Free and open discussion provides an environment in which truth can be discovered, and the offensive provides a frame of reference for recognizing what is good.
Furthermore, incidental exposure, not actively-sought, to views or content within the public sphere exposes citizens to alternate ideas, serving to foster a well-informed populace. This is all premised on the notion that adults are responsible for themselves and always free to choose other options.
Now, since there may be members of these groups on our campus, who insist on being treated like children and who may be incidentally exposed to my views here – God forbid – I should probably break this down into terms they can understand. So here goes:
Children, you have to take the good with the bad, mmmkay. Moving on.
According to various newspaper reports, it would appear that Standing for Decency has their own concept of the marketplace of ideas, one that could be more accurately renamed "the marketplace of ideas that reflect our myopic worldview and none other."
The Provo Gold’s Gym complied voluntarily, according to a Jan. 26, Deseret News article, after receiving threats of being protested "until the end of days." Which, by the reckoning of chuckleheads like Standing for Decency, will probably come to pass sometime in the next 20 minutes.
A spokesperson for Standing for Decency, Jesse Yaffe, called the victory "America in action." Hmm, I certainly hope not. This sounds more like Nazi-Germany in action to me. I only hope they send out a press release before they host a public book burning so we can get some photos.
I wonder at what point personal responsibility comes into play? Couldn’t people avoid incidental exposure to undesirable content either by buying an iPod, averting their eyes, going somewhere else, or staying home with a blankey draped over their head?
I go to Gold’s Gym. I don’t watch the TVs. I hate TV. I listen to my iPod instead.
What I don’t do is make my dislike of television or music videos anyone else’s problem. I take responsibility for my own preferences.
So why does the concept of personal responsibility escape these people? My guess is, bless their hearts, they are too little to understand.