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A Father's Message Echoes in FCC Ruling

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Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By Will Nelligan

When I was around six, my mom and I used to take walks through local parks around Boston. One day downtown, she and I were strolling past a group of older kids, one of whom was playfully punching another. When the punched yelled to the puncher, "f**ing stop it!" the punching stopped, the kids laughed, and we kept on walking. That same night, as my dad playfully tickled me before bedtime, I remembered the older kids from earlier that same day and yelled, "f***ing stop it!"

I assumed the word I had heard earlier was just another one I should add to my growing vocabulary. Boy, was I wrong. My dad stopped tickling me: "Where did you learn that word?" I explained my story, and as he listened, the expression on his face slowly shifted from incredulity to bemusement. "Willi," he said, "There are a lot of great words in the world. Words that make you excited and inspired." He paused, and looked right at me, "then there are words like the ones those kids used today. Words that when you use them, people lose respect for you. Words that when you use them, I lose respect for you." I don't think I swore for the next ten years.

I thought a lot about what my dad said to me, more than a decade later, as I read the news of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to strike down the Federal Communication Commission's "fleeting expletive" policy, a regulatory mechanism that fines broadcasters for airing expletives on live television. I was glad to read the court's decision, and, despite our conversation years ago, I think my dad would be too. I can't imagine any parent wanting their young - and deeply impressionable - child hearing or repeating that kind of language, and I can certainly imagine my father changing the channel for me if he were to hear it in a program I was watching on television. At the same time, good parenting doesn't always translate to good policy. That's where the FCC went wrong. By fining networks hundreds of thousands of dollars for showing swearing, all in the name of "protecting children," the FCC overstepped its bounds and placed a big and blunt barrier between broadcast television and viewers of all ages. For that, they landed squarely in the category of government censorship... and the federal appeals court.

When they overturned the "fleeting expletive" regulation, I have a feeling the 2nd Circuit had in mind Justice William Brennan's dissent in Pacifica Foundation. v. FCC, as it described the danger of regulations like the FCC's. In Pacifica, Brennan argued that, just because one group of people - even children - might be offended by, or better served without, certain content, government is not allowed to limit that same content arbitrarily:

...there runs throughout the opinions of [Justices Powell and Stevens] another vein I find equally disturbing: a depressing inability to appreciate that in our land of cultural pluralism, there are many who think, act, and talk differently from the Members of this Court, and who do not share their fragile sensibilities. It is only an acute ethnocentric myopia that enables the Court to approve the censorship of communications solely because of the words they contain.

Brennan was right back then, and the 2nd Circuit was right last night. If not because the protection of children from certain content should surely be left up to the parents of those children, then because the governmental solution is simply too broad to work. In other words, it limits non-obscene speech as much as it limits instances of "obscene" speech. It does more damage to our "marketplace of ideas" than it does good. One of the more poignant examples of the dangers of this kind of regulation was cited by the court itself: the decision by CBS's Phoenix, Arizona affiliate to refuse live coverage of former NFL star and war hero Pat Tillman's funeral, because of the graphic language some members of the Tillman family had used to describe their grief. Under the FCC's standards, the Arizona broadcasters were even unsure as to whether live outpourings of grief at the death of a loved one wouldn't be declared "indecent." As such, seeking to avoid fines in the millions of dollars, Phoenix CBS - and underlying it, the FCC - deprived the public of one of its most sacred rights: the right to know.

There is a layer of sarcastic political comedy underlying the entire discussion about broadcast obscenity and the limits of free speech. For all the time and energy conservatives spend talking about "starving the beast" and "ending the nanny state" when it comes to fighting hunger, improving our schools, or taking guns off the street, when it comes to Saving Private Ryan or The Golden Globes, Republicans would prefer that government have a seat right in your living room, preferably between you and your TV.

As far as my Dad's concerned, as much as he was right to scold me or turn off the TV back then - and occasionally, even now - that was his job to do, not the FCC's. And bottom-line, now that I'm 18 and about to be a college freshman, I think he respects my right to watch and consume the content that I want to. Just as long as it isn't during his Red Sox game.

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