Pigs, Barrels, The F.C.C. And Lyrics : The Record A federal appeals court ruling on the F.C.C.'s 2004 indecency policy demands a clear definition of obscenity, but Tom Cole recalls how G. Gordon Liddy managed to cross the line without uttering a single forbidden word.
NPR logo Pigs, Barrels, The F.C.C. And Lyrics

Pigs, Barrels, The F.C.C. And Lyrics

George Carlin was arrested in 1972 for performing "Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say On Television" and charged with violating obscenity laws. Marty Temme / WireImage hide caption

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Marty Temme / WireImage

George Carlin was arrested in 1972 for performing "Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say On Television" and charged with violating obscenity laws.

Marty Temme / WireImage

This week, a Manhattan appeals court overturned the Federal Communications Commission's 2004 indecency policy as "unconstitutionally vague." After U2 singer Bono proclaimed his "f-ing" joy at winning a Golden Globe during a live telecast, the FCC ruled that any use of the "f-word" was inherently obscene and therefore enforceable. What the ruling actually means is unclear.  Broadcasters are unlikely to rush "wardrobe malfunctions" and "fleeting expletives" onto the air.  And the FCC may well appeal to a higher court.  But for now, broadcasters can not be fined each time an excited celebrity decides to be "spontaneous" during an awards ceremony.

The ruling did, however, make me think of an episode some 30 years ago.

First some background: Just before graduating from high school in 1972, a friend of mine and I went to the U.S. Government Printing Office to pick up our study guides for the FCC Third Class Radio Operators License test. Our goal was to land a spot on our respective college radio stations — in my case, powerful 10-watt KDIC, "The Voice of the Students," in Grinnell, Iowa.

One of the principles that I remember most from that book (which I still have) was the idea of the airwaves as a "public trust" — that the government gives broadcasters their own spaces on the air for free and in return, broadcasters promise to serve the public interest.

I'll wait for you to stop laughing.

About 10 years after passing the test and getting my "third ticket," I had a real job at WAMU-FM here in D.C. I was in a cab on my way to an interview. I remember the cab was going over the Whitehurst Freeway and the cabbie had on G. Gordon Liddy's radio show. Our country allows convicted criminals a second chance.

At any rate, as the cab glided across the picturesque freeway, I distinctly recall Liddy talking about how he'd like to take John Dean, who testified against Liddy and Dean's other Watergate co-conspirators, bend him over a barrel and make him squeal like a pig.

I have never forgotten it. I didn't know you could say that on the radio.

But you could. Liddy didn't use any of the so-called "seven dirty words."  The irony of course is that, while you can state your desire to commit sodomy as an act of revenge, you can't actually play the George Carlin "Seven Dirty Words" routine on-air — a commentary that addresses the issue of what is or is not obscene (or, for that matter, Lenny Bruce's "Tits and Ass" routine, which addresses the issue from the stream-of-consciousness perspective of the fictional owner of a nudie bar struggling with the words for his marquee).

Which brings me to my point. The airwaves — whether they be used for broadcast or broadband — are still a public trust. It's our responsibility to use them to inform, not insult. To be thoughtful, not threatening — and yet still address controversial issues.

The challenge facing all of us as we exercise our opportunities to use the airwaves on-air or online is how to do it responsibly. The challenge facing the FCC is how to create guidelines that do not tread on our 1st Amendment right to free speech. The commission cannot propose to regulate "intent." Yet context is everything. The rules can't just be a list of words. It's an almost impossible task — as history has shown.

I think of the case of Scottish author James Kelman, who won the Booker Prize in 1994 for his novel, How Late it Was, How Late. The win raised a huge stink because of Kelman's repeated use of the "f-word" in telling the story of a man blinded after an encounter with the police. Kelman said he was writing in the voice of the Glasgow housing projects where he grew up. Sound familiar?  How many hip-hop musicians have made a similar case for their rhymes? How do we carry their case — or Kelman's — to a wider audience without offending some sensibilities? By presenting it in some kind of context?

I don't pretend any answers but I suspect they may ultimately have to include — for better or worse —  pigs and barrels.

After U2 singer Bono proclaimed his "f-ing" joy at winning a Golden Globe during a live telecast, the FCC ruled that any use of the "f-word" was inherently obscene and therefore enforceable. What the ruling actually means is unclear.  Broadcasters are unlikely to rush "wardrobe malfunctions" and "fleeting expletives" onto the air.  And the FCC may well appeal to a higher court.  But for now, broadcasters can not be fined each time an excited celebrity decides to be "spontaneous" during an awards ceremony.

 

The ruling did, however, make me think of an episode some 30 years ago.