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Decency Over the Airwaves is a Public Good


Location: Washington, DC

Decency over the airwaves is a public good

By Congressman Joe Pitts

The Supreme Court recently announced it will accept a case regarding the government's ability to ban so-called "fleeting expletives." The term, a euphemism used by the broadcast networks, describes accidental uses of words that have been deemed inappropriate for public airwaves.

The case in question is FCC vs. Fox Television Stations. Fox and other broadcast television networks are arguing that because "fleeting expletives" are accidental and unscripted, they should not be punished by fines. The broadcast networks are basically arguing they have the right to abdicate any responsibility for what is said on their networks. The only problem is that the networks broadcast over public airwaves, and we, as a society, have decided we do not want profane filth polluting those airwaves.

In a decision handed down last summer, the Second District Court of Appeals took the side of the networks and decided the profanity rules enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were "arbitrary and capricious." Solicitor General Paul Clement, in arguing for the Supreme Court to hear the case on appeal, noted that the FCC has received hundreds of thousands of complaints from citizens who are angry about profanity on the airwaves. He noted that the FCC has been given the responsibility to regulate the airwaves, but has had their ability to do so taken away by the Second District's ruling.

Perhaps the judges sitting on the Second District Court would do well to review the underlying concept of broadcast television. The major networks broadcast their programming over the airwaves. These airwaves are limited. Only so much information can travel on the spectrum that is able to carry information out to televisions in homes across the country. Thus, we have established these airwaves are part of the public domain.

If these judges were to understand this concept of public good, perhaps they would be more likely to understand why the major television networks do not have a right to send profanity over the public airwaves into people's homes. As a society, we have decided that expletives have no place on broadcast television. Many people do not want their children to be exposed to language they find offensive. Others just don't want to have to be exposed to it themselves. The fact is decency over the airwaves is a public good. Because they are able to use the limited spectrum, broadcast networks have a responsibility to the public, and their local affiliates, to provide appropriate content. And the FCC has been tasked with the goal of maintaining this decency.

One industry group claimed the current indecency policy used by the FCC has "chilled the creative process" for the industry. I have no doubt that the average parent in America is little worried about a chilling of the creative process for Hollywood writers if that requires the ability of celebrities to swear during acceptance speeches at awards ceremonies. If Hollywood requires profanity in order to produce "creative" programming, perhaps they should rethink their creative process.

Upon hearing the Supreme Court would take up the case, Fox claimed the appeal will give the company "the opportunity to argue that the FCC's expanded enforcement of the indecency law is unconstitutional in today's diverse media marketplace where parents have access to a variety of tools to monitor their children's television viewing." Indeed, today's media marketplace has expanded with the introduction of cable, satellite, and internet to name just a few.

However, the existence of cable television has no bearing on a parent's desire to keep their child from hearing profanity on broadcast television. And in regard to tools available to monitor children's television viewing, the broadcast networks might do well to remember they have a tool they can use to edit out expletives that take place, even on live TV coverage. Indeed, a short delay, which the networks do employ at times, can make the notion of fleeting expletives a thing of the past. In the end, the networks have little ground to stand on beyond the notion that they should have the right to broadcast profanity into your living room. I know the majority of Americans reject this notion. I hope the Supreme Court will find the same.

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