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« Reason

Supreme Vulgarities

By Tyler S. Clark (Contact)


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.


Comments

1cambridge(2967 comments)posted 5 years, 2 months ago

Your last two paragraphs say it all.

And I don't give a flying $#&^@ what stupid ?*%&@%@*^? has to say about any *%$*? $#^*@! I say. So they can take their *&$?"# opinions and shove them &(*#*%> and eat &^#* and die.

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2city_dweller(193 comments)posted 5 years, 2 months ago

This decision is misplaced and ineffective, and inadequate. The biggest problems on network tv hardly stem from the occasional and unscripted utterance of a four-letter-word. And anyone who watches tv from 7-11 p.m. knows that discussion of sex in rather explicit and crude terms (as well as other nauseatingly shallow topics) is the favorite plotline of every sitcom from "Two and a Half Men" to "How I Met Your Mother" to "Rules of Engagement" to, to, to, to ... It's endless. And shows that aren't discussing sex are instead showing graphically how a bullet penetrates a human heart or the effects of three months in nature on a decomposing corpse.

It's laughable to me that the Supreme Court thinks banning blurted swear words will all of a sudden make tv safe for young eyes and ears. There is NOTHING on primetime television anymore that is remotely appropriate for family viewing. So if the Supreme Court really wants to make my job as a parent easier, either get serious about regulation or give up the pretense of caring about morals and values.

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3irishfan91(97 comments)posted 5 years, 2 months ago

There is plenty of vulgarity with or without the use of those words. Tyler you are right to decide for yourself and for your children what they watch. We don't need a national nanny to decide what is decent or indecent. People need to get back to holding themselves accountable as parents for policing what is decent or indecent for their children. Funny that you don't feel the same way about the second amendment

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4Maggie_Pentz(85 comments)posted 5 years, 2 months ago

Well, to be fair "Irishfan", swear words and/or unsavory TV programming can't be used to kill people. I'm just sayin'...

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5epicfail(217 comments)posted 5 years, 2 months ago

"unsavory TV programming can't be used to kill people"

Tyler DID mention Hannah Montana :-)

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6irishfan91(97 comments)posted 5 years, 2 months ago

No Maggie you are right but criminals are the ones that kill people not guns. Like I have said in another post--pencils do not misspell words (a commonly misspelled word by the way is misspell) people do. Tyler is all for restricting peoples 2nd amendment rights but the 1st amendment is unrestricted. I'm just sayin'. . .

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7irishfan91(97 comments)posted 5 years, 2 months ago

Just to play devil's advocate, Maggie, some would argue that a lot of violence is rooted in children seeing it on TV--right?

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8valleypoboy(74 comments)posted 5 years, 2 months ago

Hey Irish - not playing devil at all. If the FCC is planning to ban a few "bad" words, and let all the graphic violence (think all the CSI shows) go along, then the FCC is pandering to the wackos and is totally unconcerned about the children. Its all or nothing. If I had to decide what a kid could see, show me a few boobs during the evening and leave out the graphic bullet path shattering bone lodging in the CSI producer's brain (oh wait, that last part was a hope for the season finale).

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9tylersclark(182 comments)posted 5 years, 2 months ago

We all agree there's a limit to free speech--that is, when it becomes hate speech or harmful threat. This is not unlike the limits I favor on assault weapons.

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10valleypoboy(74 comments)posted 5 years, 2 months ago

So what's the "agreed to" limit in this case? I certainly do not agree with the FCC and the right-wingers who support this censorship. I used to listen to the Bob&Tom show and quit after this decision. They were so afraid of the FCC they became not funny anymore. Sad.

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