You can understand, then, that when the Supreme Court announced it was upholding the FCC on what has been called the "seven dirty words case," a little cheer went up within me.I happen to be one of those people who heard that particular comedy routine, on WBAI, I think, and while I was not offended, I was shocked. It is nonsense to say you can turn it off. You can't move that fast. The words come at you very quickly and even though a reading of the text would lead you to believe that you were warned that something was coming, the fact of the matter is that you simply don't expect such words from your car radio. I mean, when was the last time you heard such words on the air? I bet you never did. It just never happens.
Douglas, apparently thinking as I do, filed a complaint with the FCC. He says he has a right to turn on his radio without hearing such words. He resents the intrusion. He resents the confrontation. He does not like it and he does not like it coming into his home or, in this case, his car. I agreed and I liked it fine when the justices, in a moment of breadth-taking good sense, supported the FCC. To me, it was a victory for common sense.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the typewriter. I thought of that incident with my son watching, thought of how I could use it as an anecdote to begin my column, but the more I thought of it, the more I had to ask myself what damage had been done. My son has developed no strange twitches, we have not had to rush to the child psychologist's couch and he has, in fact, never referred to the incident. That is more than I can say for myself. The point is that while the incident has been upsetting, probably more so to me than to him, it has not been damaging.
The same thing applies to the WBAI case. This is clearly a case of bad manners and terribly lousy judgment, but you ought to be able to prove damages before you call for the censor. After all, radio and television stations are licensed by the government and while this is not a clear-cut case of censorship, it is akin to it - a slight chilling of the creative juices. So I called Douglas and I told him what I was going to write - that business about the men kissing and all - but I just had to ask him who got hurt in all this. Where's the damage? He told me what I already knew, this concern with intrusions, but he wound up saying what I feared he would - there was no damage. He's wrong about that.
There's a dent in the First Amendment.