Grammar lesson: how the FCC embraced the F-word

Sunday, January 25, 2004

You shouldn’t have to diagram a sentence to know if a word is fit for broadcast. Yet that’s exactly what the Federal Communications Commission did in deciding not to penalize television stations that carried a profanity uttered by U2’s Bono during an awards show on NBC last year.

“This is really, really f—— brilliant,” Bono said during the show, which was broadcast live on the East Coast.

The FCC decided that Bono’s remark was “crude and offensive.” But since the word was used as an adjective, it did not violate the ban on references to “sexual or excretory organs and activities,” the commission ruled.

This parsing of the F-word prompted widespread ridicule of the FCC and a request by FCC Chairman Michael Powell that his fellow commissioners overturn their ruling.

Powell made his request public in remarks earlier this month at the National Press Club, where he called for a dramatic increase in the amount of fines the agency can impose on broadcasters who air indecent content.

“It’s irresponsible of our programmers to continue to try to push the envelope of a reasonable set of policies that tries to legitimately balance the interest of the First Amendment with the need to protect our kids,” he said.

Powell has a point.

Under the First Amendment, the government – including the FCC – cannot completely ban profane language or potentially offensive material unless it meets a narrow legal test for obscenity. However, the FCC can require that indecent material (that is not legally obscene) be barred from broadcast between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are likely to be watching or listening.

This system generally works. It means that adult-oriented material has a place on the public airwaves, but it also recognizes society’s interest in shielding children from extremely profane or sexually explicit content. Given the FCC’s sporadic enforcement, it represents a minimal infringement on free expression and is consistent with a licensee’s mandate to serve the public interest.

Unfortunately, some networks and programmers – perhaps emboldened by the increasingly racy content on cable – have let limits on profane language slide, giving ammunition to those who would impose far greater restrictions on broadcasters.

U.S. Rep. Doug Ose, R-Calif., was motivated by the Bono controversy to introduce a bill that would ban eight profanities from broadcasts. The bill closes any potential grammatical loophole by specifying that these words would be prohibited whether used as verbs, adjectives, gerunds or participles.

The bill spells out each word. “I regret you’ve got to be specific, but apparently there’s somebody out at the FCC who needs that kind of direction,” Ose told the Associated Press.

It happens so often. One goofy step by government begets another.

The current FCC regulations bar indecent programming when children might be watching or listening, but the rules permit commissioners to look at a broadcast in context. While certain profanities would be indecent on a situation comedy broadcast at 7 p.m., the context would be far different in a 9 p.m. PBS documentary targeted to a mature audience. Ose’s plan would make no distinction between the two.

So often these controversies arise because participants fail to use common sense. The FCC’s grammatical exercise is one example; Ose’s proposed blanket ban is another.

Although this column refers to the F-word more than once, my strong hunch is that you won’t see the unedited profanity in the headline above. Under the First Amendment, newspapers have an absolute right to publish the eight profanities cited by Ose, but they almost never do so.

This discretion is driven not by fear of government but by respect for readers and recognition of a special responsibility to parents who bring newspapers into their homes. The irony is that a medium that is not licensed by the government exhibits the most respect and restraint.

In coming weeks, the FCC almost certainly will reverse its decision and bar the F-word in all its permutations. That won’t change the face of communications law, but may remind broadcasters that a little respect for viewers and their households can go a long way toward heading off direct restraints by government.

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