Right call by high court

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How do the winds blow on the U.S. Supreme Court when it is called on to draw lines between the First Amendment rights of business and the powers of government to curb those rights? In the most recent test, the results were encouraging.

The court examined a 1996 federal law aimed at protecting kids from incidental exposure to "adult" cable TV channels. For most cable systems, it limited transmission of incompletely "scrambled" signals for adult channels to between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The court mustered a 5-4 majority to void the law on the grounds that publicizing a "less restrictive" option under the law (parents can have cable operators totally black out such channels from their home sets) would achieve Congress' objective without imposing the same speech burdens.

Playboy Entertainment Group, which challenged the law, markets soft-core adult channels via cable and satellite. Many in the ad community will have mixed feelings about its "product"; some will detest it. All advertisers, however, eventually rely on the courts to check government's impulse to give speech rights, including commercial speech rights, short shrift when pursuing other goals. This often can happen when government seeks to control speech in the name of protecting children, a rationale offered time and again to justify curbs on truthful ads for age-restricted products such as tobacco and alcoholic beverages, or on ads for foods not favored by nutritionists, and so on.

Speech "rights" won't always outweigh concerns for kids or other issues. What advertisers can insist on is that judges see that government meets the tests the First Amendment imposes; that no free passes be given. In the Playboy case, the Supreme Court met that obligation.

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