High Court to decide whether F-bomb is ready for prime time

Dennis Baron debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU
Fri Nov 14 05:37:47 UTC 2008

There's a new post on the Web of Language:  High Court to decide  
whether F-bomb is ready for prime time

If you're in front of a microphone and you feel a fleeting expletive  
coming on, you better say it now, before the Supreme Court says you  

Last week, the court heard oral arguments in FCC v. Fox Television  
(07-582),a case that will decide whether TV stations can be fined for  
broadcasting fleeting expletives and other "indecent material . . .  
directly into the home during the time of day when children are likely  
to be in the viewing audience."

According to federal law, "Whoever utters any obscene, indecent, or  
profane language by means of radio communication shall be fined … or  
imprisoned not more than two years, or both" (18 U.S.C. § 1464). In  
the past, the Federal Communications Commission used this power to  
fine stations for repeated on-air obscenity, as in the famous George  
Carlin "7 Dirty Words" case.

But recently the agency began dinging stations for any off-hand f- 
word, calling its impromptu use by Bono at the 2004 Golden Globe  
awards "shocking and gratuitous." The networks went to court to  
protest the fines, and although the Second Circuit ruled last Spring  
that the occasional, nonliteral use of F-words was not indecent or  
obscene, the FCC wasn't ready to pollute the airwaves with f#&% and  
s*** and appealed this decision to the Supreme Court.

Presenting the case for the FCC, Solicitor General Gregory Garre  
asserted in oral arguments that the words banned by the commission are  
alwaysindecent. Regardless of the speaker's intent, "the F-Word is one  
of the most graphic, explicit, and vulgar words in the English  
language." He added that even though "it certainly can be used in a  
non-literal way. . . as Cher used it to say 'F them' to her  
critics . . . it inevitably conjures up a core sexual image."

Garre acknowledged that the F- and S-words might be useful, but  
assured the court that people had other media options to satisfy their  
daily expletive requirements: "Americans who want to get indecent  
programming can go to cable TV, they can go to the Internet."

... is going to the Internet really the answer? Read the rest of this  
post on the Web of Language.

Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


read the Web of Language:

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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