Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Aw %#$@, you still can't say $#%@ on %@#ing television.

The Supreme Court ruled today that the FCC is within its rights to fine broadcasters who air "fleeting expletives," that is, profanity used in passing during a live broadcast. (read it here)
A classic example would be during the 2003 Golden Globe awards when Irish singer Bono said "This is really f---ing brilliant!" (it's worth noting that the Irish, particularly in Dublin, seem to use "the F word" about as often as Americans use "um." In fact, it's more polite in Ireland to say "for f---'s sake!" than it is to say "for Christ's sake!" because at least then you're not taking the Lord's name in vain. I call that a good excuse.)

Of course, this ruling does not apply to cable, satellite or internet channels, only to those networks that broadcast over the public airwaves (remember when TV only had 12 channels or so? Those airwaves).

The Supreme Court, which voted a close 5-4 in the FCC's favor, dodged the question of whether or not banning expletives is a First Amendment issue. I'm going to follow their lead and leave that question for another day.

What I am going to do is follow the argument of Justice John Stevens, who noted that most four-letter words are used in a sense totally deviod of their literal sexual or scatalogical meanings. These words are not, in and of themselves, obscene when they are used as a modifier or casual expletive. When you drop something on your foot and yell "S---!" or say "I can't f---ing believe this!" you are not referring to feces or the act of copulation, and therefore, are not being literally obscene.

However, these words can be considered rude and probably inappropriate for some contexts. Few people would argue that they are polite.

So, my question then is not whether it's Constitutional for the FCC to ban profanity. My question is whether it is appropriate for a government agency to regulate manners.

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