Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Another Free Speech Issue

Since we're getting embroiled below, I figure I should bring up another case of laws abridging free speech. I know a few commenters are outraged about censoring funeral protestors, but I doubt they'll come to the aid of corporations trying to advertise, though I don't see how one is different from the other.

"Look!" exclaims my 3-year-old daughter, pointing excitedly at a box of cookies in the supermarket. "It's Dora! And Boots!" I nod and smile. "Yes, it is," I say, and we move on.

I do not feel injured by this exchange. But according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a D.C.-based health nanny group, if I lived in Massachusetts the incident would be worth at least $25 in statutory damages.

Using that sort of reasoning, CSPI, the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and two Massachusetts parents who would rather sue multinational corporations than stand up to their own children are seeking billions of dollars in damages from Viacom (which owns Nickelodeon, home of Dora the Explorer) and Kellogg, maker of sugary breakfast cereals and other food products CSPI thinks your kids shouldn't eat. The plaintiffs say it's not about the money.

I believe them. This lawsuit, which CSPI and its allies plan to file under a Massachusetts consumer protection statute prohibiting "unfair or deceptive acts or practices," is really about censorship. By threatening onerous damages, CSPI aims to achieve through the courts what it has unsuccessfully demanded from legislators and regulators for decades: a ban on food advertising aimed at children.

The lawsuit argues that Viacom is on the hook for $25 "at a minimum" every time a kid in Massachusetts sees one of its characters attached to a "nutritionally poor" food product, or sees an ad for such a product on Nickelodeon or in another Viacom outlet. By CSPI's reckoning, Kellogg owes $25 whenever a child sees one of its ads, so an Apple Jacks commercial on Nickelodeon is worth $50 per viewer every time it airs.

Perhaps the absolute free speech advocates below can either agree with the absurdity of this, or explain to me why funeral-goers should have to remain subject to protestors hurling obscenity at their deceased love-ones but children have to be protected from the speech of advertisers? This is why I get so cynical during free speech debates. Those who often claim unlimited free speech rights for protestors are quick to swing the swords of political correctness and censorship against displays of religion and commercial interests.

How is this Massachussetts law any different from the Missouri one? Both attempt to regulate speech. I don't see any difference.