Here at ULC Monastery blog we try to cover the latest news on freedom of speech and religion, so the recent developments in federal free speech protection are of particular interest. On 13 July, a federal appeals court in New York City struck down the media profanity ban imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), declaring it an unconstitutionally vague threat to the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The ruling illustrates how constitutional freedoms seem to be a work in progress rather than a practical reality in the United States, especially with regard to freedom of speech in media broadcasting; it also reflects the schizophrenic preoccupation with “protecting” children and families in the U.S.
Judge Rosemary Pooler of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan sent down a statement for the three-judge panel explaining the decision to throw out the ban, which was put in place by the FCC in 2004 to “protect” viewers from “indecent” references to sex and excrement. (Read our blog entry on religious attitudes towards sex and sexuality.) Until the decision, the FCC had the power to fine broadcasters for allowing even a single expletive deemed “indecent” by the FCC to make it on air. In the statement, the court argued that “[b]y prohibiting all `patently offensive’ references to sex, sexual organs and excretion without giving adequate guidance as to what `patently offensive’ means, the FCC effectively chills speech, because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the FCC will find offensive “, adding that “[t]o place any discussion of these vast topics at the broadcaster’s peril has the effect of promoting wide self-censorship of valuable material which should be completely protected under the First Amendment”. The decision allowed for the FCC to lay out a new policy which did not violate First Amendment freedoms.
While some will view opposition to the ban as a frivolous preoccupation, the ban has had a substantial impact on how information is communicated in the media. One example of “chilled speech”—speech which reflects nervous self-censorship—which the court cited is a Vermont radio station’s refusal to broadcast a political debate because one of the politicians was known for having sworn on-air; another is a Pennsylvania station’s refusal to air news coverage that did not deal directly with public safety. In reference to such decisions, the court stated that the “chill reaches speech at the heart of the First Amendment”. Broadcasters who opposed the ban reported satisfaction with the court’s decision.
Perhaps the most intriguing response to the decision comes from the FCC itself and deals with the protection of children and families from “indecent” speech. FCC Chairman Julian Genachowski expressed the Commission’s views on how to harmonize public decency, morality, and free speech when he said in a statement, “[w]e’re reviewing the court’s decision in light of our commitment to protect children, empower parents, and uphold the First Amendment”. Meanwhile, Tim Winter, president of the Parent Television Council, inveighed against the ruling: “A three-judge panel in New York once again has authorized the broadcast networks unbridled use of the `F-word’ at any time of the day, even in front of children”. Apparently, the grave and solemn fear that American parents harbor over the corruption of children’s minds by words they already hear on the playground is alive and well.
Does this fear make any sense, and does it coddle children while sanitizing artistic expression of its inherent attributes? For people who subscribe to evangelical and fundamentalist religious values, words such as fuck and shit are so deleterious to children’s psyche that artistic integrity and honesty in music, film, and literature should take a back seat to the delicate purity of a child’s mind. But, ironically, by maintaining that children and families should not be exposed to profanity, opponents of the court’s ruling seek to deprive individuals—including children and families themselves—of their right to unadulterated self-expression. It is hard to see how it makes any sense to protect people’s rights by taking them away. Of course, one might argue that children and families care about freedom from dirty words, and not the freedom to use them—but of course they do. Artists, writers, and commentators belong to families as well, and all of them were children at one point, so, in essence, by shielding children and families from profanity, it is impossible not to impinge on their rights.
As many of our legally ordained ministers and clergy members already know, ULC Monastery believes strongly in freedom of speech and, indeed, in any freedom which does not interfere with the freedoms of others, so we see the court’s decision regarding the FCC’s policy as a move in the right direction. Perhaps more parents might choose to remove their television sets and radios from their homes and force their children to play on the playground, but here, again, they will hear the same expletives that they would hear on the airwaves, so protecting them from profanity proves impracticable and, ultimately, detrimental to their careers when they grow up to become artists and writers.
Read our ecclesiastical proclamation of canon law to find out more about our stance on individual rights.