On This Day in 1993: Janet Reno Censors Television

27 years ago today, Bill Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno instructed the television industry to scale back the violence on television, threatening the use of an executive order or an act of Congress to censor the industry if it doesn’t censor itself.

Reno’s plan included three courses of action to “ban violent programming when children make up a substantial part of the audience, require Federal regulators to rate television and cable programs for their violence content and force broadcasters to precede violent programs with warnings.” Now of course, this is not an explicit use of government force, but these threats are backed by just that. And Reno isn’t quiet about that. She developed an entire plan on how to force her personal desires upon the television industry and into our living rooms. She even gave the industry a deadline as to when it has to have censored itself. To claim this wasn’t State action would be to claim that a robber did not rob me, because I handed him my wallet, all the while ignoring the fact that there was a gun to my head as the robber “politely” asked me to give him my money.

One would certainly see such a plan and immediately discount it as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Reno, however, maintained that this was a constitutional plan. This lunacy and deliberate ignorance reminds me of a quotation from Lord Acton: “Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The First Amendment reads that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This plan would violate clearly violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. One would have to be oblivious to not see this.

Even if the First Amendment did not exist, one would still have the right to speak freely, nonetheless. One will notice that the First Amendment does not say the government grants the freedom of speech, it says that it will not inhibit the freedom of speech. In other words, the freedom of speech is a pre-political natural right that is implicit within one’s own moral agency. If a government inhibits this right, it is thereby violating the very nature of a human being.

But the federal government would never recognize that now. The power that comes with having a position within a state apparatus such as the US Federal Government must be intoxicating. Most elected officials are legal positivists, meaning that they believe law comes from their orders rather than from human nature, and thereby reject the natural law theory to which the Founding Fathers, the drafters of the Constitution, subscribed.

No one in a federal position is stupid enough to genuinely believe this plan doesn’t violate the Constitution or fundamental human liberty. Their ignorance is deliberate. While Reno’s plan may come across as irrevocably stupid, it is not. It is inconceivably evil. Reno was not an idiot. She wouldn’t have become the Attorney General if she was. But she was evil. She was evil enough to feign ignorance regarding what constitutes as a fundamental human liberty. This is only one example of this kind of action one can see in government, and a minor one at that, as I have shown throughout this book.