For the public relations professional, spin is a four letter word. But you won’t find it on any list of words you can’t say on television. The FCC, despite what you may think, has no such list. Yet, the agency responsible for regulating broadcasters has levied many a fine at radio and TV stations which dared to air “profane” language and images, based on complaints that “community standards” were violated.
The Fox television network is putting this 70-year-old policy to the test. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this past week on the government’s power to regulate profanity and nudity on broadcast television. Fox argues that the FCC’s indecency policy is unconstitutionally vague and violates the First Amendment’s free speech rights. This same argument came before the high court in 1978 during the FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation. That was the case in which Pacifica, the operator of New York radio station WBAI, argued that the First Amendment protected its right to broadcast comedian George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine. The court’s ruling, in effect, limited the hours in which “unwanted speech” could be heard on the public airwaves, hours when children would be least likely to hear it.
Students in my Mass Media History class recently had a spirited debate about this, with almost all surprisingly supporting the idea of restricting some of the language on broadcast radio and TV. But they mostly agreed that if such restrictions are in place, there should be a very specific list of taboo words and images. As impractical as this may be, they believe this would be fair and constitutional.
Before his death in 2008, George Carlin often said that these were just words, words that our society somehow became hung up on, and we all needed to get over it. Philosophically, I agree. But as the father of four grown children, and now as a new grandfather, I still like the idea of a safe harbor: a time and place on the public airwaves free from four-letter words. The art of crafting good words is job of the talented PR practitioner; I wonder if we should just leave the foul words to the people who write for cable TV. Your thoughts?