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Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Saturday, December 13, 2003

Those 'seven dirty words' are scaring the right wing again.

Because the US airwaves belong to the public (in theory, at least), broadcasters have free-speech rights that are somewhat more restricted than those enjoyed by print media or cable and satellite broadcasters. The government's regulatory agency, the FCC, has for decades enforced rules governing the use of 'sensitive' language over the air; that is, language that would be considered indecent or obscene by 'current community standards.' Despite the efforts of some leftist broadcasters to challenge these rules, they have remained in effect to this day, bolstered by an important Supreme Court ruling in 1978. (See the links in the 'Background' section below).

One of the peculiar results of the litigation around the topic of broadcast indecency is that there are only seven words that courts have legally determined to be unsuitable for broadcast. Other indecent and obscene language is governed by FCC rulings, which are often inconsistent. Upset with how these inconsistencies play out when the FCC deals with complaints from viewers or listeners, Doug Ose (a Republican member of Congress from California) has proposed writing the ban on the 'seven dirty words' into federal law.

Two incidents seem to have inspired Ose's proposed legislation: The first was U2 member Bono's use of the expression 'fuckin' brilliant' when he accepted a Golden Globe award on US television back in October. The second incident, and apparently the one that got under Ose's skin the worst, was the FCC's subsequent determination that Bono's language didn't violate existing indecency rules.

From Ose's remarks on the floor of the US House of Representatives on Dec. 8:

Mr. Speaker, I rise to introduce the Clean Airwaves Act, legislation designed to prohibit seven profane words from being broadcast over America's airwaves. Existing guidelines and standards that govern our airwaves and communications mediums allow profane language to infiltrate the hearts and minds of our nation's youth. I rise today to protect our children from existing rules and regulations that leave them vulnerable to obscene, indecent, and profane speech through broadcast communication. [...]

The current FCC guidelines regarding indecency determinations aren't strong enough to stop harmful, indecent, and profane language broadcast over America's airwaves. It is wholly necessary to give the FCC the tools it needs in order to protect our broadcast airwaves. Currently under FCC policy, indecency determinations hinge on two factors. First, material must describe or depict sexual or excretory organs or activities. Second, the material must be patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. The vagueness of this stipulation creates a loophole that inevitably allows specific profane language to be broadcast.

When the ownership of TV and radio stations is concentrated in the fewest hands at any time in the country's history — and when many broadcasters are shamelessly acting as shills for the government — aren't you glad that Representative Ose is making sure that our children won't suffer irreparable pain and harm as the result of someone saying the word 'fuck' on the air?

Some background: The use of 'indecent' language over the airwaves in the US has been the subject of much lobbying and legal action over the past three decade. Broadcasters have faced the nightmare of having to enforce vague FCC rules with the knowledge that they'll only know if they broke a rule if the FCC hits them with a fine. (As someone who spend 20 years in community radio, Magpie can tell you how difficult it was to keep the content of a station's programs within the FCC rules.)

If you aren't familiar with the history of the 'seven dirty words' and the FCC's rules governing 'indecency,' we can suggest some good places to start:

— The text of comic George Carlin's famous 1970s routine about the 'seven dirty words' that couldn't be broadcast is here.
— The text of the US Supreme Court's ruling in Pacifica v. FCC, which resulted from a broadcast of Carlin's routine by a community radio station, is here.
— The text (in PDF format) of the FCC's 2001 guidelines for broadcasters regarding its regulation of indecent language is here.

| | Posted by Magpie at 8:05 PM | Get permalink

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