Friday, June 08, 2007


Fleeting expletives

A federal appeals panel recently invalidated the FCC's fine structure for indecent language. Well, that's too broad a statement, but it actually might work out that way. What they did, specifically, was say that the FCC's relatively new practice of fining broadcasters for the escape of “fleeting expletives” (a phrase that I think I'm going to keep, though I'm not sure how generally useful it'll be) is untenable:

Adopting an argument made by lawyers for NBC, the judges then cited examples in which Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney had used the same language that would be penalized under the policy. Mr. Bush was caught on videotape last July using a common vulgarity that the commission finds objectionable in a conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. Three years ago, Mr. Cheney was widely reported to have muttered an angry obscene version of “get lost” to Senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the United States Senate.

“We find that the F.C.C.'s new policy regarding ‘fleeting expletives’ fails to provide a reasoned analysis justifying its departure from the agency's established practice,” said the panel.

Dick Cheney's comment on the matter was, “Well, fuck that shit!”[1]

No, I made that last bit up, sorry. The truth is:

Emily A. Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman, said Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney had no comment about the ruling.

Of course this ruling makes sense: the level of censorship on American television is just ridiculous, putting us almost at par with the middle-eastern theocracies that we so criticise, and with regimes like China and North Korea. The Europeans simply think we're silly.

And what, really, is the difference between the original dialogue and an overdubbed rendition of something like, “Get that freakin' gun out of my freakin' face, you freakin' dipstick, before I kick your mother-jumpin' ass!”?[2][3] Is it really the words that are offensive, and not the meanings behind them or the situations they accompany? I suspect that if your kids started going around calling people “mother-jumpers”, you wouldn't really be any happier, would you?

The consideration of what it is that's truly offensive really should be the crux of the matter anyway. In the infamous Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” incident, the whole song was arguably offensive, and certainly not the best thing to have eight-year-olds singing along with (I recall something about, “I'm gonna get you naked before the song is over”). Given that, fury over a two-second glimpse of nipple just seems misplaced. Another cited incident involved Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie at the 2002 Blockbuster Music Awards, and something truly tasteless that the latter said... but isn't just having those two on TV the really offensive thing?

Out priorities are backward when we think it's OK for our kids to watch government agents torture people, but we have to make the victims call their torturors things like “mother-jumpers” to protect the kids' morals.

But as I said at the beginning, this ruling only directly applies to the “fleeting expletive” situation, where people like Nicole Richie and Dick Cheney (did you ever think you'd see those two names juxtaposed?) blurt out an “f-word” or two when we didn't expect it. It doesn't directly cover the airing of a movie, where we know in advance that we're going to hear some bad words or see a bare breast, and there's an opportunity to censor it before the fact.

Which is why this part of the ruling is so juicy:

Although the judges struck down the policy on statutory grounds, they also said there were serious constitutional problems with the commission's attempt to regulate the language of television shows.

“We are skeptical that the commission can provide a reasoned explanation for its ‘fleeting expletive’ regime that would pass constitutional muster,” said the panel in an opinion written by Judge Rosemary S. Pooler and joined by Judge Peter W. Hall. “We question whether the F.C.C.'s indecency test can survive First Amendment scrutiny.”

Of course, that's just dictum for now, but other courts are likely to pay attention to it, which is why, according to the NY Times article, “both network executives and top officials at the Federal Communications Commission said the opinion could gut the ability of the commission to regulate any speech on television or radio.”

Other links:
A New York Times editorial on the matter.
The full text (PDF) of the ruling.

[1] I know, I violated my own rule. But it's just a fleeting expletive; it won't be a recurring thing.

[2] Yes, I actually heard “mother-jumpin'” dubbed over the “indecent” version, just the other day.

[3] We're allowed to say “ass”, if you can imagine. And they say the rules are capricious!

1 comment:

Ray said...

Speaking of Janet Jackson's nipple, well, not really, but using "the incident" and the frenzied response it evoked, I find it truly hypocritical and outlandish that a similar outcry doesn't occur every time one of those erectile dysfunction ads appears on TV. I would have thought a two-second glimpse of a decorated breast was far less offensive than a detailed description of how you could overcome ED, and the accompanying advice that if an erection lasts longer than blah-blah hours you should consult your physician.

I just can't reconcile the two.