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Craig Parshall, General Counsel

 

Ranting Has Its Limits

September 7, 2011

Al Gore, as all of us know, is impassioned when it comes to “global warming.” But while giving a speech at the Aspen Institute recently, Mr. Gore seemed to outdo himself in his four-letter vitriol aimed at climate change naysayers. In so doing, Mr. Gore actually highlighted the core issue in a pending Supreme Court case.

In its blog coverage of the Gore speech, the Los Angeles Times headlined it as “the rant heard round the web” and noted the excess of angry profanity in his speech. (In fact, the Times commentator wrote that “[Gore] let loose with an expletive-laden rant.”) The point here is that even though there is no legal rule outlawing profanity on the Internet (as opposed to obscenity, which is a “horse of a different color,” so to speak), the Times was responsible enough not to share the actual verbiage. Instead, the newspaper’s blog quoted Mr. Gore’s wind-up to his salty language and then explained: “because we can’t put curse words on the blog, we’ll have to stop there.”

Like other news services, the Los Angeles Times follows a self-imposed rule against “vulgar” or “profane” content. Now, change gears and leave the world of digital print and think of over-the-air broadcasts. Next week, in the case of FCC v. Fox Television Stations, et al., NRB plans to file an Amicus Curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the FCC's rule against “indecency,” a policy that is enforced against radio and television stations. We think the Commission’s rules make sense, and are clear enough for the average broadcast journalist or station manager to figure out. However, the big networks– Fox, ABC, CBS, and NBC–disagree, and are arguing that the FCC’s policy is so vague and ambiguous that it violates the First Amendment rights of broadcasters.

Here at NRB we are empathetic about protecting the free speech/freedom of religion/free press rights of Christian communicators, and in a larger sense, recognizing the legitimate interests of all communicators. But the self-regulation exercised by the Los Angeles Times reminds all of us that “indecent” profanity and crudeness has little or no value as a vehicle for expression, and it shouldn’t be all that hard to recognize and prevent when it comes to broadcasting content. The Supreme Court came to that conclusion 31 years ago in the Pacifica case, and we are hopeful that this reasoned balance that has been struck between the huge amount of free speech that is permitted under the First Amendment, and that small amount of expression that is not, will be upheld once again.