Censorship and the FCC

Although the Second Amendment has been getting more press recently, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, association, and religion is a pivotal bulwark in our nation’s founding. Free speech has become nearly synonymous with democracy, and as a principle it is highly uncontested in our country. However, the idea that someone can say absolutely anything they would like becomes nauseating when it comes to protests about national and personal morality at soldiers’ funerals or two preteen blonde girls singing pop songs in support of white supremacy. Spewing hate goes against our collective conscience demanding equality, but even the least democratic beliefs must be preserved by democracy to be foiled at all.

There are more gray areas, however, when it comes to censorship and speech and press rights. It may seem a bit counterintuitive, perhaps even unconstitutional, that the executive branch of the government includes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) whose primary purpose is to, well, censor. You’ve doubtlessly heard, either in person or in the media itself, the alarmed cry: “You can say that on TV?” The person posing the question is referring to the foggy idea of “rules” for broadcast, fluctuating depending on the channel, day, and time. The FCC governs such content as profanity and indecency. From F-bombs dropped by guests on daytime talk shows to the infamous “nip slip” at the Super Bowl in 2004, the FCC monitors broadcast content in so far as it is deemed inappropriate for general audiences.

The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that content-based bans on speech are completely unconstitutional. The moment the government begins to ban speech according to the views expressed within it is the moment that dissent against the government and all controversial perspectives are in jeopardy. The FCC is different, though, as it wages war against profanity, whether it is someone proclaiming they “f—— love Obama” or the opposite. However, it is not illegal to make such a proclamation in word or, luckily enough for me as a writer, in print either. Broadcast is different because the audience has the potential to be different. A child could easily be assaulted with indecent images from the television before a parent has the ability to change the channel, or could be forced to overhear profanity from a radio station while in a public setting. The difference here is quite simply the audience, both its scope and its nature. Broadcast audiences are completely passive, with no ability to respond to the speaker or to monitor situations before images or words are put in their paths. The FCC aims to preserve children’s innocence by only allowing certain language and images at certain times of the day and on certain channels. The rule it aims to follow is gauging what the average person would be offended by, and hence the regulations have changed over time, slowly progressing and loosening.

The major qualm with the FCC, then, is the question of art. The Supreme Court has ruled many times that art gives an exception to certain uses of profanity and indecency. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, for example, has merit as a work of literature, and hence the uses of derogatory terms like the N-word are worthwhile for the purposes of conveying Twain’s message. Broadcast media may be granted to have similar worth, and profanity or indecency may be justifiable as a means to an artistic end. The FCC is not a static organization, and its regulations are similarly dynamic, but its main purpose is to preserve the sensibilities of a passive audience by pruning indecencies from broadcasts where the message would not be marred by the deduction.

The FCC does not, in fact, infringe on our First Amendment rights, and as long as the Supreme Court continues to uphold their rulings that beliefs can never be censored, we should all feel secure that we will not be assaulted with images or language that will offend us due to their very vulgarity. However, the Supreme Court is not upholding anyone’s right to be free from offense. I may be deeply offended that the Westboro Baptist Church is spewing hate in the name of Christianity, but they may be deeply offended that shows like “Will & Grace” are broadcast or that an expert may appear on the news in support of the war effort. The moment we base freedom of speech on the qualms of anyone in the States is the moment we lose freedom of speech entirely. So yes, FCC, please do make sure our children don’t hear swearing on a daytime talk show or see pornography on the five o’clock news. But as horrified as I am by some people’s opinions, I would be even more horrified by their absence. Although, at that point, I probably would have lost my right to voice my horror.

Comments are closed.