June 23, 2007
Children Vs. The First Amendment: Sugary Foods and Marketing to Kids

Children v. The First Amendment. This is the choice being touted by Ed Markey, our Democratic Representative here in Massachusetts. I had been following Ira Teinowitz's writing (look here and here) in TelevisionWeek following public policy surrounding the media industries, especially in light of the recent decision by Kellogg's to quit promoting its cereals to children if they can't follow certain nutritional guidelines.

Markey was quoted as saying, "The First Amendment is precious, but the children of our country are just as precious." And I agree with him. But I also think the First Amendment is there for our children. While I don't want them to be dying of diabetes and heart failure before they are 30 and get a chance to enjoy their First Amendment, I don't feel particularly comfortable with government restrictions on these issues.

I've always been more of an advocate that the best way to fight speech you don't like is with alternate speech explaining why that original speech isn't so great. That's why I hold no ill will toward the grassroots public support that these nutritional groups have. If companies make decisions voluntarily based on consumer pressure to make a change, that's one thing. For the government to step in is quite another.

I first wrote about these issues earlier this week in my piece, "Are Trix for Kids? Will Other Cereal Brands Follow the Kellogg's Lead?"

For Markey, the answer is governmental pressure on companies to try and make them follow Kellogg's lead, so it will be interesting to see how these issues play out.

In that piece earlier this week, I wrote, "The irony, though, is the moral reform that was once linked with making breakfast cereals a staple of the American diet are in some ways echoed in the current focus in removing certain cereals from kids. Of course, the sugary content of Fruit Loops and Cocoa Krispies does not compare to those original cereals being promoted at Battle Creek, but it is quite significant that cereal remains at the base of our debates about nutrition, morality, and ethics in American culture."

I later questioned about the value of the cartoon icons for these cereal brands among adults, since children are far from the only consumers of Fruit Loops.

None of this is to say that the concern of children's health is not an unfounded one but rather that inserting children into the equation can't automatically negate free speech issues. I think the Kellogg's decision is an interesting example because it was a voluntary decision (although one brought about by lawsuit pressure, among other things); governmental insertion is another thing altogether.

For more on related issues, see my piece about the ways in which Kellogg's markets cereals called The Cereal Serial.

Also, see my six-part series entitled "Access vs. Censorship: Avoiding Schizophrenia in U.S. Media Policy."