THE U.S. CIRCUIT COURT of Appeals here recently set aside an order of the Federal Communications Commission barring seven specific words from the airwaves. It did so because one judge thought the order abridged the First Amendment and another thought the order was too vague to meet the strictures of that amendment. Either way, the decision focuses attention againd on one of the most difficult current problems: to what extent can society control the content of radio and television programs, particularly as it may effect the morals and manners of children?
We see no need to print the seven words in question. It is hard to imagine the circumstances that would justify their use in a family newspaper or on the airwaves. Suffice it to say that they are barnyard words used to describe sexual and excretory organs and functions.The monologue in which they were used over and over again is one that never should have been allowed on the air. But it was. And the FCC, in an effort to keep it and other material using these and similar words off radio and television, fashioned a rough set of standards of what constitutes "indecent language" that cannot be broadcast.
The competing values here are large. On one hand is the legitimate desire of most people to keep out of their homes and cars, and particularly to keep away from their children, the kind of filth that is all too prevalent today. On the other hand there is the First Amendment's guarantee that people can say what they want to say with little or no limitation and with no prior censorship by government.
We find this conflict between values much easier to resolve when it involves the printed word or even motion pictures than when it involves radio and television broadcasting. In the case of the former, communities can protect those who find the material offensive by restricting sales or admissions to exclude children and by barring its display in public. The same cannot be done so readily with radio and television, where words and pictures are broadcast without warning and limiting access to children is difficult even in the most carefully supervised families. The offending material can already have been heard or seen before the switch can be turned off.
The easy answers to this problem lie in the claims that responsible broadcasters won't permit material of this kind on their stations and that, if irresponsible ones do, a vigorous public reaction against their programs will soon drive them off the air. The trouble with that solution lies in the experience of recent years with pornographic magazines and movies. Their success at least suggests that there may be a market for broadcast filth and, if such a market exists, some irresponsible broadcasters, like irresponsible publishers and movie-makers, will fill it.
Frankly, we are not sure how the conflict should be resolved. The potential evils of government censorship are clear - if it can control language and the expression of certain kinds of suggestive thoughts on the air, the way may be opened to control other kinds of thoughts. But if government can't constitutionally place the kind of limitations on radio and television that the FCC attempted to place in this case, should society sit back and rely solely on the broadcast industry not to drag everyone down to the lowest level of taste and speech? A better accommodation than any we have yet heard about is badly needed.