Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I Know What George Carlin Would Say

The English language is very tricky, especially when words have more than one meaning and use. And even more so when they're "bad" words--bad words said on television. Yesterday the Supreme Court released its 5-4 decision (PDF file) in FCC v. Fox TV upholding the FCC's 2004 decision declaring that a nonliteral (expletive) use of the F- and S-words could be actionably indecent, even when the word is used once. From the opinion written by Justice Scalia:

The Commission first declared that Bono’s use of the F-Word [at the Golden Globes Awards ceremony] fell within its indecency definition, even though the word was used as an intensifier rather than a literal descriptor. “[G]iven the core meaning of the ‘F-Word,’” it said, “any use of that word . . . inherently has a sexual connotation.” The Commission determined, moreover, that the broadcast was “patently offensive” because the F-Word “is one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language,” because “[i]ts use invariably invokes a coarse sexual image,” and because Bono’s use of the word was entirely “shocking and gratuitous.”
This case concerns utterances in two live broadcasts aired by Fox Television Stations, Inc., and its affiliates prior to the Commission’s Golden Globes Order. The first occurred during the 2002 Billboard Music Awards, when the singer Cher exclaimed, “I’ve also had critics for the last 40 years saying that I was on my way out every year. Right. So f*** ‘em.” The second involved a segment of the 2003 Billboard Music Awards, during the presentation of an award by Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, principals in a Fox television series called“The Simple Life.” Ms. Hilton began their interchange by reminding Ms. Richie to “watch the bad language,” but Ms. Richie proceeded to ask the audience, “Why do they even call it ‘The Simple Life?’ Have you ever tried to get cow s*** out of a Prada purse? It’s not so f***ing simple.”

My favorite part of Justice Stevens' dissent:

The FCC minimizes the strength of this limitation by now claiming that any use of the words at issue in this case, in any context and in any form, necessarily describes sex or excrement. See In re Complaints Regarding Various Television Broadcasts Between February 2, 2002 and March 8, 2005, (Remand Order) (“[A]ny strict dichotomy between expletives and descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory functions is artificial and does not make sense in light of the fact that an expletive’s power to offend derives from its sexual or excretory meaning” (internal quotation marks omitted)). The customs of speech refute this claim: There is a critical distinction between the use of an expletive to describe a sexual or excretory function and the use of such a word for an entirely different purpose, such as to express an emotion. One rests at the core of indecency; the other stands miles apart. As any golfer who has watched his partner shank a short approach knows, it would be absurd to accept the suggestion that the resultant four-letter word uttered on the golf course describes sex or excrement and is therefore indecent. But that is the absurdity the FCC has embraced in its new approach to indecency. See In re Complaints Against Various Broadcast Licensees Regarding Their Airing of the “Golden Globe Awards” Program,(declaring that even the use of an expletive to emphasize happiness “invariably invokes a coarse sexual image”).

Note that during arguments and in the opinion, it was always "F-word" and "S-word". Any quotes in the opinion were altered with asterisks, e.g., "f***".

Regardless, the last thing this fucking United States Supreme Court opinion brought to mind was a coarse sexual image.

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