Jeremy J. Jones – Stranded in Thought

May 9, 2009

What Are We Saying?: The F.C.C. Gains More Power Over Our Airwaves

Filed under: Opinion,Politics — Jeremy @ 6:03 pm

The Supreme Court recently upheld the F.C.C.’s determination that a one-time, fleeting use of an expletive on live television could be punished under the indecency statute, as reported by the New York Times: Supreme Court Upholds F.C.C.’s Shift.

This sets a dangerous precedent, and should be reviewed immediately.

It’s important for people to understand the role of the F.C.C. Its task is to ensure that no broadcaster violates the “Crimes and Criminal Procedures” statue of the United States Code, Section 1464, Title 18. This document states: “whoever utters any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”

But the meaning of the words “obscene, indecent, or profane” have been left open to interpretation, presumably to allow the meanings to change with time. However, this leaves them open to interpretation based on personal, rather than popular, opinion.

The F.C.C. has five commissioners. They are appointed by the President of the United States, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and they serve five-year terms. The President appoints a chairperson from one of the five, who provides the moral compass for the Commission. Based on the five-year term limitation, any president who serves two terms will have the opportunity to nominate commissioners to all five spots. However, only three of the commissioners may be from any one political party.

But what this means is that like the Supreme Court, the President has the ability to place commissioners sympathetic to his party’s dogma in place in the F.C.C., and can even name one the chairperson. In fact, the only requirement to be a commissioner is to be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. One need have no experience in the broadcasting world, and it’s preferable if one doesn’t to prevent favoritism or lenient treatment of broadcasters.

As a result of these rules, the F.C.C. can make any determinations it wishes regarding what we are and are not allowed to see or hear in our broadcasts. The only way to stop them is to take the case to circuit courts, which has happened several times, and to the Supreme Court if necessary, which has happened twice.

The most famous Supreme Court case involving the F.C.C. and indecency was the broadcast of the late George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine. A New York radio station broadcast the sketch in its entirety, and was fined by the F.C.C. after a complaint by a listener. (Incidentally, the F.C.C. can fine no one if a citizen files no complaint; they have no teeth if society allows things to pass.) They took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld that broadcast of those words was “indecent.”

I should define those three words, in terms of the government, as well as the rules regarding their broadcast while I’m at it. All these definitions come from the F.C.C. website.

Obscene material is defined as “material of a pornographic nature.” This material can never be broadcast. Ever.

Indecent material is defined as that which “depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards.” This one requires some significant discussion. First, one must wonder why we cannot broadcast material that “depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs,” when we are constantly bombarded with advertisements for products helping with erectile and vaginal dysfunction, constipation, difficulty urinating, and incontinence. I fail to see why a discussion about sexual intercourse in a drama or comedy is any less appropriate than an advertisement calling for a man to visit a doctor if he has an erection lasting more than four hours.

Profane language is the use of words considered offensive enough to be a “nuisance” to society. That is exceptionally vague and open to interpretation.

Now, it might be interesting to learn that there is a defined “safe harbor” period, during which a broadcaster may broadcast up to indecent material with no penalty upon complaint. That is currently defined as from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., local time. This is the reason why we can see reruns of “Sex and the City” at 11 p.m. where they don’t edit the words “asshole” or “Goddammit.”

One other interesting piece of information is that none of this applies to the Internet, cable television, or satellite radio; these media may broadcast what they wish. The Internet is somewhat of a gray area, but the F.C.C. considers subscription fees for cable and satellite broadcasts, as well as the known more risque programming on these outlets, as a sort of acceptance that material might be offensive or inappropriate for children.

But lately, some performers have been dropping F-bombs at the Golden Globes or Video Music Awards, one time only, and people have been offended and have complained. The F.C.C. has levied huge fines to the broadcasters, and the Supreme Court upheld that this was legal. This means that Fox could be liable if a football player drops an “F” too close to a field mic, or if Ward Burton uses an epithet to decry his and his team’s performance on race day (one which I personally loved; say it like it is, Ward!).

I think it odd that we have a definition of indencent language as that which is “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards,” that simply does not reflect all contemporary communities. I don’t know very many people who have never dropped an “F” in conversation, and it’s not because I’m a heathen. It’s because there is but a minority of American population that does not occasionally use these words.

If you want to know the origins of the F.C.C., start with Sir Charles Sedley, in 1663 England, who was the first person ever fined for acts of indecency (that is a great story; either look it up or ask me). Then flash forward to the late-nineteenth century in New York and one Mr. Anthony Comstock, the father of modern American restrictions on language. This man waged war on obscene language in books, primarily pornographic books, resulting in his working on a pro bono basis for the U.S. Postal Service, where he headed a team which confiscated and burned books considered offensive. He set the precedents for religious groups, who set out to protect children through our broadcasting. Though the F.C.C. and its antecedent, the Federal Radio Commission, were created for the purpose of regulating broadcast frequencies, a statute was slipped in when no one was looking to make sure our children hear no dirty words. It’s a good thing too; they’re so well protected today as a result.

Lastly, I think it is sad that I live in a world where our broadcasters are required to limit what they can broadcast, in clear violation with the intent of the First Amendment, based on the desires of religious groups who seem to think the word “fuck” is offensive but have no problem with “nigger” or “wetback” or “squaw.” It’s just backward that in most families, we scold people for using so-called curse words, but turn around and tell racially-charged jokes continually. That greatly disappoints me, and should disappoint you too. You know who you are.

But the latest Supreme Court decision on indecency is good news for the religious groups. Now they don’t have to worry so much for a while; all of us who think opposite from their rhetoric have been dealt a painful blow, and it might take us many years to recover.



  1. It amazes me that so called intelligent people have such fits over the subject of normal body functions. I think our preoccupation with body function and their descriptions cause deviant behavior. If it is looked at closely I think we will find that a family’s preoccupation with making things that are sexual taboo creates persons with a distorted vision of life and sexual things and causes antisocial behavior. WE would all be more healthy emotionally if we dropped this preoccupation with sexual things. Our children would grow up to be well adjusted and we would have fewer sexual deviants.

    Comment by Merriweather Jones — May 18, 2009 @ 12:26 am

  2. I have always disliked the F.C.C. and all it represents. I decided to do a research paper on the origins and legality of the Commission last summer in my Composition class. The great thing about that process is that now nobody can argue with me about the subject; I’ve done considerable research on it, so I know what I am talking about. That said, there are many who would know more, but more often than not, people talk like they know what they’re talking about when they really don’t (me included).

    But I am happy to have learned what I know about the F.C.C. It just confirmed for me that it shouldn’t exist, at least not for the reasons it does. It might interest you to know that the F.C.C. is part of the Department of Homeland Security. That makes it easier to regulate communications, and therefore monitor what all people say, not just the radio and television. Also, the F.C.C. has its own security force, which is basically a S.W.A.T. team, which it uses to shut down pirate broadcasters forcefully. Imagine what some crazy president could do with that.

    Comment by Jeremy — May 19, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

  3. […] review of this case, as well as the meaning of terms contained in this article, please read “What Are We Saying?“. This article was written as a college project, but has been updated with the information of […]

    Pingback by Watch Your Mouth: The F.C.C. Is Listening | Jeremy J. Jones - Stranded in Thought — July 30, 2014 @ 8:08 am

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