FCC Alert! Now That’s Indecent (December 20, 1987)

Miami Herald December 20, 1987
Author/Byline: Bill Cosford Herald Movie Critic
Edition: Final
Section: Amusements
Page: 1K

How would you like to be told that if you said the wrong thing you would lose your livelihood, and then when you asked for some guidance as to what the “wrong thing” might be, they told you that they couldn’t tell you in advance, but that they’d have to wait until you spoke, and if you said the wrong thing they’d tell you then. And take away your livelihood.

Sounds like Orwell, right? Must be the FCC.

Sure enough.

The Federal Communications Commission recently issued one of its rulings regarding “indecent” speech on radio and television. The new ruling amounted to a clarification of one back in April that warned radio stations in particular to look out for “indecent language,” which the commission has pointedly avoided defining.

So the clarification must have cleared things up, you figure. And so it did: It stipulated that the time when radio stations have to worry about indecent language is between 6 a.m. and midnight, when children are likely to be listening. Midnight to 6, indecent is OK.

As for the definition of “indecent”? Sorry, no details. If you’re on the air between 6 and midnight, you’ll just have to be careful what you say. If you guess wrong, and the FCC hears about it, your license could be at stake. And of course, without a license you don’t broadcast.


Now, here is an interesting story that has been happening at the same time that the FCC has the nation’s radio stations in thrall to a standard that is unwritten (outside of the slippery “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards,” which standards, of course, are also unstated and undefined):

Out in Utah, where they apparently grow these pudding-heads like weeds, an “avowed racist” and white-supremacist talk-show host had his radio show, The Aryan Nations Hour, canceled after only two weeks of swill-spilling. No, the FCC didn’t get him. Death threats and “loss of advertisers” (there’s a surprise) did him in. The FCC didn’t mess with him. The FCC doesn’t censor.

Unless they think you’re about to be indecent. One sees the problem. Everyone sees the problem, except the commission. After all, there’s no question that the very idea of an Aryan nation, an idea tried and squashed in simpler times, is indecent, presuming as it does that one set of men and women is innately inferior to another by caprice of an armed lunatic fringe. And there is no question that of the many kinds of dangerous (yet still protected) speech to which none of us wants his or her children exposed if possible, racist rant is right up there, contending for No. 1.


So why have Howard Stern (in New York) and Neil Rogers (in South Florida), among many others nationally and locally, found themselves forced to tone down their shows — to censor them under an FCC chill — while the drooler out in Utah would still be in business if he could just sell a few more whites-only spots?

Because the FCC isn’t really concerned with decency. It’s worried about doo-doo.



The Seven Deadly Words, augmented by a lengthy list of synonyms and euphemisms. It is worried about precisely the “indecency” with which kids across the land are already well acquainted (and where do we come up with these people anyway, who think that kids don’t stay up past midnight?).

Don’t get me wrong. Our Constitution makes it quite plain that pretty much all speech is protected, and it doesn’t take much agonizing over the vaunted Framers’ Intent to guess that it’s unpopular speech that needs protection most. After all, you don’t need an Amendment, let alone the First, to protect your right to say things everyone likes.

So the point isn’t that the Aryan frother should be fitted with a government-issue muzzle, however happy the thought. The point is that “indecency” is one of those weasel-words that has no business winding up in law, which FCC “rules” might as well be since they carry with them the threat of enforced silence. What is indecent to me may well be the soul of wit to you, etc. (In one of this saga’s delicious subplots, a New York radio station submitted one of the more ribald passages of James Joyce’s Ulysses to the FCC for pre-clearance, to which one of the commission thinkers replied, “I’m amazed it made it as a classic.”)

The big irony here is that on this point there is very little argument outside of the commission itself and a handful of wild-eyed pressure groups, the “usual suspects” of Decency Campaigns. A good guide to “community standards”: Here, as in most of the rest of the country, independent TV stations have been running uncut R-rated movies in prime time for years, during which time an initial trickle of complaints has dried up altogether. The “indecency” of this material is simply not a big deal to the “community.”

It seems to engage only a tiny flying squad of busybodies — to which, alas, the FCC responds with crackpot zeal.

It’s not right. It is not American. It is not decent.

Copyright (c) 1987 The Miami Herald

Bill Cosford