Whose words are these? "Television and all who participate in it are jointly accountable to the American public for respect for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the advancement of education and culture, for the acceptability of the program materials chosen, for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising. This responsibility can only be discharged through the highest standards of respect for the American home, applied to every moment of every program presented by television."

These are not the words of some government regulator but of the National Association of Broadcasters, which included them in its 1952 code of standards. Few Americans would disagree with these words. But our government, in a moment of litigious insanity, attacked the code in court on the theory that its restraints on commercial time violated antitrust laws. The government effectively killed the code in 1982, and thus contributed to the toxic stew of programs that children see today.

At the time the government forced the NAB to abandon its code, two-thirds of our television stations subscribed to it. Neither Congress nor the federal judge who ruled in the case thought the suit a good idea. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) called it "wrong." Art Buchwald quipped, "The beauty of government servants is that they are always willing to help American citizens, even when you don't want them to." And U.S. District Court Judge Harold Greene, who heard the case, asked a Justice Department attorney, "What did you hope to gain?"

What we "gained" is an abandonment of broadcasters' efforts to maintain their programming standards. What we gained is a torrent of shock jocks and video vultures who ridicule Kosovar refugees and stage fights on the public airwaves.

This week President Clinton holds a White House conference on children and violence. In the aftermath of the Littleton shootings, much has already been said on this topic, and the entertainment and media industries -- film television, video games and the Internet -- have already come in for their share of finger-pointing. But let's not forget that our own government helped to make the problem worse.

In our overdue national discussion on children and violence, let us have some teaching about the First Amendment, too. A few years ago, a respected company such as Time Warner defended its distribution of a violent rap song about killing police officers

as an attack on the company's free speech rights. Not long before, NBC News argued that criticism by viewers and affiliate stations of its broadcast of an on-camera murder of a Miami woman was an attack on its First Amendment rights. And when a dentist in Texas organized a letter-writing campaign to television stations complaining about after-school television talk shows featuring strippers, transvestites and serial killers, one prominent talk show host accused the dentist of violating his rights.

What all these events have in common is that ordinary people were charged with censorship when they used their own free speech rights to disagree with viewpoints or programming they found in poor taste or bad judgment. What these people understood -- what we should all understand -- is that the First Amendment does not restrict editors, producers, publishers or broadcasters from exercising their professional discretion about the products they distribute to the public -- and especially to children.

One of the clearest explanations of what the First Amendment is was given by Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Co., in a speech last year to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He said, "The amendment starts out by saying, `Congress shall make no law.` In other words, it is setting out rules of behavior for the government, not for us. This makes the amendment all the more remarkable. After all, most legal documents dictate the behavior of citizens, instructing us on everything from how to drive our cars to how to build our homes to how to pay our taxes to even how to protect our trademarks with long round ears. The First Amendment does just the opposite. It regulates the government, and lets us be."

Steps to clean up television, video games and the Internet will not violate the First Amendment if these steps are taken in the private sector. The media industries properly call for self-regulation but resist opportunities to do so. Congress has made clear that the antitrust laws are no longer a bar to creating codes of good practice, and has urged the television industry in particular to move beyond program ratings, which are no substitute for professional standards. The First Amendment protects us from the government; it is not a barrier to acting on our own good judgment about the health and wellbeing of our children.

Newton N. Minow is a Chicago attorney and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Craig L. LaMay is a journalist and a professor at Northwestern University.