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Supreme Court Hears Arguments For Free Speech On TV

Invoking the First Amendment, the broadcast television networks brought a suit against the Federal Communications Commission to overturn the language standards imposed on them but not on cable programming. The Supreme Court last heard this issue in 1978, after a mid-afternoon performance by George Carlin (photo right) using “The 7  Words You Can’t Say On TV.”   It was before the explosion of cable and the Court upheld the FCC’s authority to regulate both radio and television content during the hours when children were most likely to be watching, specifically before 10 p.m. The child-safe “prime time” ruling was somewhat amusing given a controversy that arose a few years earlier over an episode of a late-night talk show. The late Robert Goulet performed a song from the movie On a Clear Day which included a line about a woman returning “wrapped in Saran” and the switchboards went nuts with protests from people who were concerned about their children hearing this racy lyric at midnight.

The networks don’t necessarily want a carte blanche to have the f-bomb being used every other word, but they do want some consistency. An accident on a live awards show can trigger large fines, but the same word can clear Standards and Practices if it is used in a movie like Saving Private Ryan. The suit, which has been working its way through the system for a while, cites the fines imposed for a shot of a naked lady’s buttocks in an episode of NYPD Blue which aired in that post 10 p.m. timeslot on the East Coast, but at 9 p.m. Central and Mountain time, as well as those awards show slip-ups. The networks have made the argument that the standards are confusing.

The government has countered that the broadcast networks need to be retained as a “safe have” of family-safe programming, though that idea is debatable. The standards may control language and nudity, but there are plenty of conservatives who will argue that programming like Modern Family is not “family safe.”

Advocates of changing the rules have made the point that nearly nine in ten households in America are hooked up to either cable or satellite, where the majority of the programming has no standards and that people have really lost track of whether they are remoting onto cable channels or broadcast anymore. It’s an insulting argument, presuming that people are too dumb to know that traditional broadcast stations are the single digits on the cable channels. The broadcast networks continue to draw in much larger numbers of viewers than the cable channels.

No matter what the FCC tries to do with regulations, it will be too complicated because of the nature of language.

The simple truth about cuss words is the more they are used the less power they have. Words are not intrinsically bad or good. They are whatever we declare them to be, nothing more. The f-bomb began as a legal term, an abbreviation for the reason someone was incarcerated, a notation in the prison records. It stands for “for unlawful carnal knowledge,” and has been around for at least 200 years. It is people who have made it a dirty word, along with any slang word for any bodily part or function. These are not the same as real cursing, which involves blasphemy and the Third Commandment. Offensive words also include any derogatory slang word for an ethnic group or person – a real tricky area since these words are frequently acceptable when used by the people they refer to but not out of the mouth of anyone else. What is offensive to one person can be perfectly acceptable to others. Years ago, I had a student complain to me that another child had used a dirty word. When I asked about it, I discovered that the “offensive” student had been telling the other kids about a horny toad he had captured. And just try teaching Richard III without using the word “bastard.” What is and isn’t offensive can get seriously nutso. As hard as it is with figuring out FCC regulations, try teaching. It’s far worse.

As with all Supreme Court decisions, it will be weeks before we know the results of today’s hearing.




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