More on FCC and linguistic hygiene

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jun 8 12:15:00 UTC 2007

A supremely decent ruling
June 07, 2007

If it's good enough for President Bush, it's good enough for the TV
networks. Ad-lib cussin', that is. That's what a split federal appeals
court ruled Monday, in effect using the president's own public use of
fleeting obscenities to reject the Federal Communications Commission's
indecency policy that permits fines for networks or stations for
"fleeting expletives" uttered on television. And that's good enough
for us.

The irony, of course, is that the FCC is now loaded with conservatives
appointed by Bush and has been on a crusade in the past few years to
punish stations for what the commission regards as obscene language or
behavior, even if the stations had no chance to prevent it, as in live
broadcasts. Think an F-word dropped by U2's Bono during the 2003
Golden Globes and vulgar comments by Cher and Nicole Richie on the
Billboard Music Awards. The FCC has ruled that simply uttering the
F-word or S-word implies that intercourse or an excretory act has
taken place and that would be a violation of the FCC's indecency
standard, which prohibits language that describes "sexual or excretory
activities or organs." It has pursued this policy with vigor, and
heavy fines.

But the appeals court found this rigid interpretation to be "divorced
from reality." It said obscenities are often used in everyday language
to express excitement or out of frustration, with no sexual or other
meaning intended. It cited examples of vulgar comments by Bush and
Vice President Cheney to help make this point. And it told the FCC to
come back to court with some rational — legal — explanation for why it
had decided to abandon its longstanding policy that did not hold
broadcasters responsible for ad-lib obscenities by guests on live
shows. The court also said it doubted the commission could come up
with such an argument, perhaps because the Supreme Court has already
rejected such a policy as "inequitable."

A little common sense. This is not, as FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and
some fans of government control of media would have us believe, yet
another example of the decline of civilization as we know it — a
product of "the New York Court," as Martin not-so-subtly repeated in
reacting to the ruling. Yeah, those blankety-blank liberal New York
judges did it again. Bull. This is a victory for the four TV networks
— Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC — which have called the FCC's new policy
arbitrary, inconsistent and unconstitutional. (These policies, by the
way, do not apply to cable and satellite networks.) And it is a
victory for the First Amendment, which is diminished with each attempt
by government officials to control what we say, hear and see. The
prospect of heavy fines (Congress recently raised the maximum to
$325,000 from $32,500 for each offense) for fleeting expletives or
vulgar words in a prepared script, has drawn protests from producers
and writers who see it, correctly, as an effort to stifle their

This newspaper is foursquare in favor of removing some of the
coarseness that has seeped into our culture and public debate. But not
by letting some political appointees decide for us what is and is not
appropriate or obscene speech, or TV viewing. If there is too much
sex, too much violence, too much vulgar speech on TV or in movies,
viewers can let the producers of such entertainment know by staying
away. Parents can exercise more control over what their children see
in prime time. Networks can — and do — exercise control over what they
choose to put on the air. We can all do a better job of policing our
own language. And the FCC can take its puritanical indecency policy
and write one more suited to the 21st century.

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