Published May 4, 2009
Our society's use of language has evolved greatly over the years. We no longer possess the innocence depicted in, say, Leave it to Beaver--if we ever really did. You wouldn't know that, however, by the Supreme Court's ruling last week that upheld the FCC's crackdown on "fleeting expletives."
The question is whether "isolated" or "impromptu" cursing, such as fu** and sh**, refer to the words' otherwise sexual or execretory connotations. And, even if not, are the words themselves so abominable that their mere utterance imperils the fabric of America's family.
Justice Antonin Scalia was not concerned with Freedom of Speech, as long as the prohibition was "reasonable": “It was certainly reasonable,” he wrote, “to determine that it made no sense to distinguish between literal and nonliteral uses of offensive words, requiring repetitive use to render only the latter indecent.”
“The commission could reasonably conclude,” Justice Scalia wrote for the majority, “that the pervasiveness of foul language, and the coarsening of public entertainment in other media such as cable, justify more stringent regulation of broadcast programs so as to give conscientious parents a relatively safe haven for their children.”
Of course, this assumes that children are watching prime-time television, which is somewhat absurd to me to begin with. I'm not letting my 7- and 5-year-old children anywhere near prime-time television, much less daytime television on network channels. They can watch a few programs on the Disney channel, and that's not including Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers or High School Musical, which all probably give them too many ideas to begin with. I'm sure our policy will continue to evolve as time marches on, but my point is that the "conscientious parents" to which Scalia alludes would be foolish to leave anything, much less a sense of morality, to television broadcasters.
Neither NBC, ABC, CBS nor FOX have my children's best interests at heart, though they might protest otherwise. I understand how this works: they make compelling television (which frequently appeals to our prurient and voyeuristic natures to keep us riveted), which they then sell to advertisers (who frequently appeal to our prurient and voyeuristic natures to keep us consuming). None of this suggests that my children would be well-suited to be plopped down in front of the TV for live, prime-time events, be it the Oscars where celebrity egos run at the mouth, or the Super Bowl where Doritos and Bud Light compete for the most scintillating and scantily clad models.
Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting, wrote that not every use of a swear word connoted the same thing. “As any golfer who has watched his partner shank a short approach knows,” Justice Stevens wrote, “it would be absurd to accept the suggestion that the resultant four-letter word uttered on the golf course describes sex or excrement and is therefore indecent.”
“It is ironic, to say the least,” Justice Stevens went on, “that while the F.C.C. patrols the airwaves for words that have a tenuous relationship with sex or excrement, commercials broadcast during prime-time hours frequently ask viewers whether they are battling erectile dysfunction or are having trouble going to the bathroom.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting, wrote that “there is no way to hide the long shadow the First Amendment casts over what the commission has done.” Justice Ginsburg added, “Today’s decision does nothing to diminish that shadow.”
There is a matter of taste. When I'm meeting with a client or a new acquaintance, I am careful with my language. I understand what's to be said in polite company and what's not. I am aware that some people have no such filter. It is a matter of personal responsiblity to be sensitive to the company you keep and to comport yourself appropriately, in behavior and language.
Otherwise, let us speak freely and candidly. Let parents guard their children--it is their responsibility to do so, not the courts' or the government's. It's a messy world out there, and you've got to watch where you step. If you're watching the Grammy Awards with your pre-teen, and Bono steps up to the mic . . . if you haven't muted the television by the time he opens his mouth, you're not exercising due caution.