Who says U.S. Supreme Court decisions can’t be funny? In a decision delivered yesterday in the case of Federal Communications Commission versus Fox Television, a majority of the court broadened the definition of indecency to include the broadcast of a single word. This is a huge change, when you consider that George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” skit until now had been the Court’s gold standard for illegal potty-mouthed broadcasts. Now a single slip-up in prime time will get you fined.
What’s interesting about the opinions is what they tell us about those exalted beings, Supreme Court Justices. John Paul Stevens, for instance, clearly has sympathy for the swearers among us. He takes issue with the majority opinion’s observation that “even when used as an expletive, the F-Word’s power to insult and offend derives from its sexual meaning.”
Says Stevens: ”The customs of speech refute this claim: There is a critical distinction between the use of an expletive to describe a sexual or excretory function and the use of such a word for an entirely different purpose, such as to express an emotion. One rests at the core of indecency; the other stands miles apart. As any golfer who has watched his partner shank a short approach knows, it would be absurd to accept the suggestion that the resultant four-letter word uttered on the golf course describes sex or excrement and is therefore indecent.”
We can all thank Paris Hilton and Cher for the newly-approved restrictions on speech. The FCC took umbrage to the two women using coarse language in broadcasts shown in prime time, when children would be exposed. (I wonder if it would have helped if they had given a warning like – “Ear muffs! Ear Muffs! – before their objectionable speech. During the 2002 Billboard Music Awards, Cher exclaimed, “I’ve also had critics for thelast 40 years saying that I was on my way out every year. Right. So f*** ‘em.” The next year, (not to be topped by Cher), at the 2003 Billboard Music Awards, Fox TV’s “The Simple Life” stars Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton presented an award. Ms. Hilton began their interchange by reminding Ms. Richie to “watch the bad language,” but Ms. Richie proceeded to ask the audience, “Why do they even call it ‘The Simple Life?’ Have you ever tried to get cow s*** out of a Prada purse? It’s not so f***ing simple.”
Parents (who should know better than to watch the Billboard awards with their kids) complained, and thus the FCC action and lawsuit. The Supreme Court majority really objected to the broadcast occurring in prime time, exposing children, and they have a good point, though, I have to credit Stevens for his observation that prime time ads aren’t fit for young ears:
“It is ironic, to say the least, that while the FCC patrols the airwaves for words that have a tenuous relationship with sex or excrement, commercials broadcast during prime-time hours frequently ask viewers whether they too are battling erectile dysfunction or are having trouble going to the bathroom,” Stevens wrote.
My sentiments exactly.