Comedian George Carlin has been in the news of late saying serious things about the First Amendment. For playing a record of Carlin's back in October 1973, New York radio station WBAI got bawled out by the Federal Communications Commission. Although the announcer warned the listeners some rough language was coming up, that didn't satisfy the FCC, which blew its official gasket over seven common dirty words, repeated many, many times in Carlin's not unfunny monologue.
WBAI challenged the FCC ruling in court and just the other day the Supremes spoke the final word on the subject. It wasn't a dirty word, but it wasn't an intellegent one either. They upheld the commission, not on the grounds that these words are too dirty ever to be uttered, but they were too dirty to be uttered on that October afternoon when kiddlypoos might be listening.
To realize how birdlandish the court's ruling is, you must know that it is unreasonable to suppose wee ones ever listen to WBAI. The FM station is run by the Pacific Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation; it takes no ads, plays no bubble-gum music, and is directed primarily at avant-gard intellectuals, unemployed PhDs and other over-educated malcontents who, depending on your politics, may be juvenile in spirit but certainly not in age. Moreover, as the major networks pointed out in their brief to the Supreme Court, studies show that next to no children listen to any radio station at that hour on a weekday for the reason that they are locked up in school taking sex education courses where presumably Carlin's Anglo-Saxon terminology is replaced with Latin cognates on whose acceptability for broadcasting neither the commission nor our nine most exalted jurisprudes have yet to rule.
Heretofore, broadcasting censorship has been justified on the basis that the airwaves, like the rivers, belong to all of us in that, since there are only a finite number of them to broadcast on, the government has a duty to see they are used in accordance with some kind of vaguely beneficial public policy. Technology has been changing that. Cable and satellite transmission has multiplied broadcasting capacity to such an extent it ought to be possible for anyone to get in front of camera and microphone and blab forever.
The scarcity argument having been overtaken by new invention, the court had defined another reason for ruling bureaucrats should be vested with the powers of censorship. It found one by describing broadcasting as a "uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all American." In other words, we're a captive audience that can't pick and choose what we will see and hear. "Patently offensive, indecent material presented over the airwaves confronts the citizen, not only in public but also in the privacy of the home, where the individual's right to be left alone plainly outweighs the First Amendment rights of an intruder," writes Justice Stevens. Or as he also said, "When the commission finds that a pig has entered the parlor, the exercise of its regulatory power does not depend on proof that the pig is obscene."
So now we have a new kind of criminal. The second story flasher, he who breaks and enters, not to steal, but to shout dirty words at you. In fact, Stevens even likens the broadcast of the Carlin record to an "indecent phone call."
All of this smacks of casuistical hypocrisy. The FCC received one complaint and one complaint only about the program. That means one of two things. Either millions heard it and enjoyed it and are now having their fun spoiled by one, single, sole, solitary complainant, or very few heard it in which case this judicially hallucinated invasion of pigs into the American home is just so much hogwash.
The court's ruling is worse than outright suppression of the seven naughty words. The ruling suggests that there might be times when it would be okay to play the record. But when would such a time be if it's not when no children are listening to a radio station no children ever listen to?
The ruling says in effect you can use any words you want if we like your message and if we don't, we may womp on you. Broadcasting is timid enough without such devilish inhibitions. Nothing is more intimidating to a broadcaster to sya if you put certain things on the air you might lose your license but we're not going to tell you what those things are.
But what's as plain as a pig in the parlor is that this is a cute form of censorship, a nasty one but not so his is a cute form of censorship, a nasty one but not so covert as some of Their Judgewhips may have supported.