Yes you know those seven famous words we all know, yet you can’t say them on (US) broadcast TV and radio? As those same words which have brought fame and wealth to comedian George Carlin who developed a famous monologue titled the “seven words you can never say on television.”
So where did this hoopla all start you ask? Well it seems that a radio station owned by the Pacifica Foundation had broadcast a program which contained these now immortal words and was fined for doing so. In turn this wound though the court system till a 1978 Supreme Court decision upheld the fine and sent these words into infamy.
So there we sat till in 2004 when the FCC decided to take a hard-line posture on the topic, holding that even a “single” unscripted instance of profanity could be considered a punishable offense. The major television networks concerned, challenged the new rules in court, arguing that they were so vague that it was not reasonably possible to tell what was allowed.
This bounced around the judicial system a bit and a visit back to the Supreme Court in again in 2009. Yet it wasn’t till the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit picked up the torch and decided that the FCC’s policy was in fact unconstitutionally vague. It even went so far to say that the uncertainties about the rules were in fact affecting speech that clearly merited protection under the First Amendment. Further attention was also brought to bear on the topic when a number of CBS affiliates declined to air the Peabody Award-winning “9/11” documentary, which contains real audio footage – including occasional expletives—of firefighters in the World Trade Center on September 11th.
As what the Second Circuit’s decision did allow was the FCC to revise its rules around broadcast censorship, possibly even a return to the time tested model. However in steps a coalition of public interest groups last week who filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to step beyond the Circuit’s position to declare broadcast censorship unconstitutional in total.
The interesting argument the groups pointed out is that the high court’s 1978 reasoning no longer holds to modern television. As they claim broadcast television was once the sole source of video content for households. Yet today that is no longer the case as we now have a wide variety of alternatives. As its now possible to access video via cable, satellite, DVD players, and least we not forget the internet. As in fact today, only a small portion of households ( 8% percent) rely exclusively on broadcast television for their home entertainment. Thus, as the argument goes it seems broadcast television is no longer “pervasive.”
It is because of this, the group feels the traditional rational for broadcast censorship doesn’t apply in the modern world and the courts should reconsider their original decision allowing the FCC to regulate broadcasting content. As the Second Circuit commented that it would have preferred to have reached that result, however couldn’t because it was bound by the Supreme Court’s Pacifica decision.
This in turn means the only solution sits with the Supreme Court itself, of course, it would have to overturn its own decision. This in turn would give broadcasting the same enjoyment of First Amendment protections which the courts have held up for other media. In short, it might not be long before we sit aghast of the tube as we watch our favorite characters drop the F bomb. Now that’s progress(?)…