The Federal Communications Commission’s standards for what can and can’t be said on television are bullshit. While some media outlets often use expletives as emotional emphasis free of repercussions, others receive fines. These subjective and vague regulations are becoming problematic for some major media networks that can’t seem to follow the rules. Now, with the U.S. Supreme Court weighing in on the matter, there’s a simple solution: Rather than enforce outdated policies, the FCC needs to adapt its restrictions to the changing times, and do so with the First Amendment in mind.
The FCC’s power to monitor and enforce media broadcasts comes from precedent established by the 1974 Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. The FCC had reprimanded a Pacifica Foundation radio station for broadcasting comedian George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine, in which he repeats seven words deemed too inappropriate for broadcast. The Court’s ruling gave FCC the broad power to limit any “obscene” speech referencing “sexual or excretory material” and since then, the FCC has regulated broadcasts on the radio waves and on television.
The Supreme Court is now revisiting that 34-year rule in FCC v. Fox Television. The FCC fined Fox after the station aired an awards show in 2003, during which various celebrities used expletives. Because the highly publicized show exposed underage viewers to inappropriate content, the FCC cracked down hard, fining the network hundreds of thousands of dollars. But consider this: If the awards show had been a newscast, there would have been no penalty.
This inconsistency cuts to the heart of why the Supreme Court should reverse its previous decision. The FCC’s current level of discretion anoints it the sole arbiter of broadcast propriety. Because of the arbitrary restrictions placed upon them, networks constantly worry about airing appropriate content. As a result, they pre-screen all live content and thus effectively end real-time broadcasting. The time delay required to preview live television for “inappropriate” content wastes time, energy and money.
Having the FCC play cultural police should also raise a few First Amendment eyebrows. It’s not the FCC’s job to do that, especially once it has demonstrated it applies its rules in inconsistent and contradictory ways. Whether the FCC likes it or not, expletives are an enduring part of American culture. They often serve a purpose, and when they don’t, they aren’t something to fear, even for kids. Attempting to control “appropriate” language is innately complicated and unnecessary.
The FCC’s arbitrary rules reflect its inability to grasp the basic idea that not all expletives are unnecessary. Media outlets should have the freedom to emphasis their points how they see fit. They shouldn’t be fined, and American audiences shouldn’t be prevented from hearing swear words when they are conveying necessary emotions.
The Supreme Court should tell the FCC to go [expletive] itself, because expletives are fucking useful.