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Sunday, July 18th, 2010
Last week, yet another set of judges court tried to figure out what counts as indecency on the airwaves. It’s a never-ending, unwinnable battle, as Chris Satullo notes in this week’s Centre Square essay.
George Carlin continues to haunt the federal courts.
Ever since the Seventies, when the stand-up comic genius insisted on saying out loud the seven words you can never say on television, he’s been at the center of jurisprudence about profanity on the airways.
His Seven Dirty Words routine returned to the news this week. A federal appeals court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission’s standard for broadcast indecency – which comes down to “we know it when we hear it” – was too vague. The standard dates to the Carlin case in 1978.
It’s pretty funny, the sight of learned judges – who I’m betting have never watched “The Bachelorette” – debating how to save TV from sexual frankness. In an age of HBO and Internet porn, it’s like locking the barn door only after the horse has been stolen, won the Kentucky Derby and been put out to stud.
Today, if you get cable, Carlin’s seven words – and acts they depict – are regularly available on your digital HD screen. A TV host, Jon Stewart, has replaced Carlin as the crown prince of cerebral comedic cussing On network TV, the seven words may remain mostly verboten, but snickering sexual innuendo is everywhere.
The more we invest the Seven Words with the power of taboo, they more they elude attempts to ban them. Here’s a true story that illustrates the point..
In 1978, after the Seven Dirty Words ruling, the editor of the paper where I then worked decided to uphold the people’s right. He told folks they could come to the newsroom to see what the words were. He wrote them on a slip of paper and left it with the newsroom receptionist, Ruth, a tiny, feisty grandmother with a Pennsylvania Dutch lilt to her voice.
One day, the front desk called Ruth, saying some guy wanted to see the editor about some dirty words. “Send him up,” Ruth said confidently. A few moments later, the elevator opened. A man in a suit strode up to Ruth and said, “I’m here to see the editor.”
“I’ve got what you’re looking for,” Ruth said, handing him the paper. The man read it, looked at Ruth, blinked several times and said:
“I’m here about the bids on the office furniture.”
Wishing you an expletive-free day, I’m Chris Satullo.