Friday, March 19, 2004
"F"-word illegal on broadcast airwaves (can cable be far behind?) . . .
WARNING: Mature Content Follows. Read at your own risk.The FCC handed down its decision Thursday in the case of the NBC stations' broadcast of the Golden Globes Awards in January 2003, at which Bono (lead singer for U2) accepted his award with the immortal words, "This is really, really, fucking brilliant. Really, really great." The Enforcement Bureau dismissed the numerous complaints filed against this broadcast because, the Bureau reasoned, "the material was not obscene or indecent, finding in particular with respect to indecency that the language used by Bono did not describe, in context, sexual or excretory organs or activities and that the utterance was fleeting and isolated." The FCC reversed, holding that fuck is always indecent or obscene:
"use of the phrase at issue is within the scope of our indecency definition because it does depict or describe sexual activities. We recognize NBC’s argument that the 'FWord' here was used 'as an intensifier.' Nevertheless, we believe that, given the core meaning of the 'F-Word,' any use of that word or a variation, in any context, inherently has a sexual connotation, and therefore falls within the first prong of our indecency definition. This conclusion is consistent with the Commission’s original Pacifica decision, affirmed by the Supreme Court, in which the Commission held that the 'F-Word' does depict or describe sexual activities."The Commission also found fuck to be profane:
We also find, as an independent ground, that the use of the phrase at issue here in the context and at the time of day here constitutes “profane” language under 18 U.S.C. § 1464. The term “profanity” is commonly defined as “vulgar, irreverent, or coarse language.”34 The Seventh Circuit, in its most recent decision defining “profane” under section 1464, stated that the term is “construable as denoting certain of those personally reviling epithets naturally tending to provoke violent resentment or denoting language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”35 We find that the broadcast of the phrase at issue here in the context and at the time of day qualifies as “profane” under the Seventh Circuit nuisance rationale.36 Use of the “F-Word” in the context at issue here is also clearly the kind of vulgar and coarse language that is commonly understood to fall within the definition of “profanity.”Can this definition of "profane" can survive First Amendment scrutiny?
I have a hard time arguing that Bono should be able to say fuck whenever and wherever he wants. It doesn't bother me terribly that the FCC wants to keep the broadcast airwaves free of such crudity. But the FCC's reasoning is off: the Enforcement Bureau was right to focus on the lack of any sexual context and the fleeting, inadvertent, unscripted nature of Bono's use. And where does this end? With 7-second delays on all football games and tennis matches so that the excited utterances of linemen and McEnroe wannabe's will be cleansed from our ears? For the time being, cable is exempt from this ruling, but there appears to be no reason in law why cable franchises can't be held to the same standard as broadcasters. That would seem to be the message from the Court in Denver Area Educational Telecommunications Consortium, Inc., et al. v. Federal Communications Commission et al. ("Cable television broadcasting, including access channel broadcasting, is as 'ccessible to children' as over the air broadcasting, if not more so. Cable television systems, including access channels, 'have established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans.' 'Patently offensive' material from these stations can 'confron[t] the citizen' in the 'privacy of the home with little or no prior warning.'")
Cleaning up the airwaves so that those who want to avoid crude speech and images is a fine goal. But it should be done in a manner that does not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The FCC's opinion in this case has no limiting principal and no handrail for the slippery slope to censorship of all artistic expression (yes, including the artistic use of fuck).