Feature

Cursing: Not on TV, you don’t

Last week the Supreme Court upheld the right of the FCC to fine TV networks that inadvertently broadcast so-called fleeting expletives.

This is “pure !@#*&$%!,” said the Las Vegas Review Journal in an editorial. In a 5–4 ruling, the Supreme Court last week upheld the right of the Federal Communications Commission to fine TV networks that inadvertently broadcast so-called fleeting expletives. For years, the FCC ignored the occasional blurted-out F- or S-word on live television, but decided to get tough during the conservative Bush administration, after a mini-epidemic of celebrities cursing at live awards ceremonies. Never mind that the quivering flower of the nation’s youth is deluged these days with constant profanity through the Internet, hip-hop, cable TV, and satellite radio, said the Chicago Tribune. To the “word nannies” at the FCC, and their conservative allies on the court, that’s all the more reason to punish the handful of media outlets they still regulate, with what is the legal “equivalent of washing mouths out with soap.”

Some mouths need washing out, said Mona Charen in National Review Online. Liberals, as we know, “are always on the ramparts attempting to kneecap traditions and standards,” and they’ve succeeded in steeping our culture in a foul stew of cusswords. Lawyers for Fox Television had tried to argue that profanities aren’t really obscene when—as in Bono’s “really f---ing brilliant”—they’re used as simple intensifiers rather than to evoke specific sexual or bodily functions, but the court saw through this linguistic gobbledygook. If anything’s absurd, said Dana Kelley in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, it’s that we needed the nation’s highest court to explain to those in charge of the public airwaves the simple principle that “cussing ain’t allowed on radio or TV.”

Where in the Constitution does it say that? said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. The First Amendment explicitly says that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” In a play, or a book, or at your corner bar, the government can’t forbid the F-word. So by what leap of logic can the FCC ban it on radio and TV? The FCC’s censorship power was granted decades ago by a misguided Supreme Court acting in the belief “that the airwaves were a scarce commodity requiring government rules on content.” This was a “dubious” exception to the First Amendment even at the time, but in the age of 500 channels, it’s positively ludicrous. Welcome to 21st-century America, where “words that may be used on Channel 31 are illegal on Channel 32.”

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