Does Profanity Reign Supreme?

The Supreme Court has taken up the case of FCC vs. Fox Television Stations, the bizarre case in which Fox and other broadcast TV networks have argued that “fleeting” profanities are mere accidents that should not be punished with fines. While it's laudable that the nation's top court would take up the matter, it's beyond outrageous that what Hollywood really wants – and in a cowardly way, is refusing to declare publicly – is the “right” to bombard your living room, and your children, with obscenities.


The high court is taking up a decision last summer by the Manhattan-based Second Circuit Court of Appeals that sided with Hollywood and told the Federal Communications Commission that their profanity rules were “arbitrary and capricious.” Solicitor General Paul Clement argued persuasively to the Supreme Court that the FCC has "hundreds of thousands of complaints" from outraged citizens regarding the broadcast of expletives. Clement said it left the agency "accountable for the coarsening of the airwaves while simultaneously denying it effective tools to address the problem."


For their part, Hollywood's paladins of permissiveness are claiming to be delighted the Supreme Court is taking the case. In a statement, Fox Television said it was happy to have “the opportunity to argue that the FCC's expanded enforcement of the indecency law is unconstitutional in today's diverse media marketplace where parents have access to a variety of tools to monitor their children's television viewing."


They will continue to argue that the concept of obscenity has been abolished by the V-chip, an intellectually dishonest position if ever there was one. Never mind that, as has been proven numerous times already, the V-chip is a useless proposition when it depends on an industry-run ratings system that is, at best, flawed, and at worst, deliberately cooked, oftentimes refusing to include the right content descriptors to make the much-ignored device actually do its job. But even if the V-chip worked to perfection, it would still be useless in catching fleeting profanities of the unscripted sort. Hollywood knows this, just as Hollywood knows that if it wanted to avoid the problem altogether, it would simply employ a delay switch to bleep out unscripted obscenities.


The point is: Hollywood wants to air them. To them, it's all a waste of money to spare the benighted rabble in the little villages who haven't learned to stop worrying and love the F-bomb.


Out in America, voters still have the common sense to believe that profanities aren't the kind of speech that you wave the flag over, as if “fleeting” profanity was a cause as American as apple pie.  Most Americans think that the quality of entertainment is in steep decline. An AP/Ipsos poll last summer asked if TV shows in general were getting better or worse, and only 22 percent said “better,” while 62 percent picked “worse.” Politicians in Washington ought to find defending children from televised profanity to be the safest issue imaginable.


It's common sense to suggest that all outbursts of profanity could be construed as “fleeting” in nature. It doesn't matter whether the cursing was unscripted (rock star Bono's Golden Globe victory speech) or scripted (Nicole Richie swearing at the Billboard Music Awards show on Fox right after her Fox “Simple Life” co-star Paris Hilton said “Watch the bad language.”) In both cases, dropping an F- or S-bomb is “fleeting.”


But what if that curse word is dropped twice? Isn't that two fleeting obscenities? If it's dropped 28 times, that makes it 28 separate, “fleeting” curses as well. How technically, is a curse word not defined as fleeting?


Let us very clear here. The networks are not seeking legal protection from a single profanity. They are seeking the courts to recognize the inalienable right to swear like a sailor on TV at any time.


Even the titans of classic family entertainment, like Disney, have signed on to the anything-goes argument for airing profanity. At a recent shareholders meeting, Disney President and CEO Robert Iger declared Disney joined the pro-vulgarity coalition "because we believe it is our right to produce and distribute different kinds of products without interference from the federal government."


But wait: the same Robert Iger just last summer announced that Disney would bow to members of Congress and drop all smoking scenes from its family films and discourage such scenes in its Touchstone and Miramax pictures. Why would those requests for less smoking be a reasonable and admirable cause worth endorsing, but pleas for less swearing are an unbearable oppression?


Hollywood wouldn't need “interference” from Washington if they would simply do what they all know is the right thing. They know it's wrong to encourage and glamorize smoking for young and impressionable children. Isn't the logic of preventing the air pollution of unnecessary profanity just as much an open-and-shut case?

L. Brent Bozell III is President of the Media Research Center.