First came the breast that ate the Super Bowl. Then came the Congress that feigned moral outrage. Last came the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), reloaded.
More than three decades ago, comedian George Carlin debuted his legendary monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The point of Carlin’s bit—which was not about seven specific words so much as it was about the dangers of phony morality—was lost on members of the FCC. The agency went after Carlin with a vengeance, and the case—FCC v. Pacifica Foundation—wound up at the Supreme Court. Carlin’s side lost, and, ultimately, the case established indecency regulations for broadcast media. Historians of such things say the “seven words” case actually opened the door for the FCC to become the largest censorship organization in the world.
Thankfully, the FCC never did much with the powers granted it. In 2003, for example, the commission received 240,000 complaints about indecency but proposed fines in only three cases.
But that was then, and this is now. Just in time for election season, the FCC and the decades-dormant governmental moral crusade on indecency has arisen again with a bullet. In an action triggered by Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” the House just passed drastic new legislation that will hold radio and TV stations (as well as individual performers) accountable for so-called indecent broadcasts. Instead of paying a potential $27,500 fine, a broadcast-license holder can now pay up to $500,000 for each violation of federal indecency rules.
It’s no surprise that President George W. Bush and the vast majority of legislators supported the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act. It’s also no surprise to find certain station owners now falling all over themselves to obey the “new morality” in broadcast standards. Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest owner of radio stations, vowed “zero tolerance” for indecency and just suspended radio personality Howard Stern’s show in six cities.
We think Stern—who boasts something like 20 million loyal listeners—is awful. He’s crude, rude, racist, sexist—indiscriminately offensive on just about every topic. And worse, he’s now become predictable. But here’s what else Stern is: free to say whatever he wants to any audience willing to listen. The idea that he can now be suddenly indecent and booted off the air by a rush of government-instituted morality is deeply disturbing. Remember: The First Amendment is not there to protect the polite words, the safe ideas.
When asked for a reaction to the new indecency furor, the 66-year-old Carlin stuck to his theme from long ago. “This idea of obscenity and indecency—bad language and whatever—it’s all caused by one basic thing, and that is religious superstition.” For Carlin, the phony morality that thrived 30 years ago seems even more alive today. Unfortunately, he’s right. And just as unfortunately, this resurgent morality undermines the First Amendment and this country.