Civil Liberties

America Gives a Shit

Was Bush's open-mic gaffe a flaming sack of good news for free speech?


At July's G-8 summit meeting in Russia, as conflict heated up between Israel and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, a microphone picked up a candid moment between George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Syria, Bush told Blair, should tell Hezbollah to "stop doing this shit."

Oh, if only every broadcast outlet in America had let that little s-bomb onto the air, unbleeped. The so-called Parents Television Council could have unleashed its barrage of computerized complaint. The Federal Communications Commission would have fined each station $325,000, per the legislation just signed by the Cusser in Chief. At last we would have had a meaty court challenge to indecency law and the FCC's inconsistent enforcement of it—an opportunity to stand up for the First Amendment against the cynical political prudery of both parties, the overblown influence of religious pressure groups, and the censorship of the FCC.

This spring, the FCC declared s-words, like f-words before them, to be a step beyond merely "indecent." Now they are "profane." That means that these "most offensive words in the English language" will "provoke violent resentment," and that uttering them on the public airwaves is as good as guaranteed to be punished.

The commissioners crossed a line there. For as the president himself demonstrated, shit and its variants are political speech. If Bush had told Tony Blair at the G-8 meeting that Syria needed to get Hezbollah to stop this "humbug" or this "no-no," it would have lost impact. How can you talk politics without these words? Isn't calling bullshit on politicians the essence of free speech and reason in a democracy?

And so the FCC now censors and chills political speech—even that of the president, for most broadcast outlets did choose to bleep him for fear of fines. Mind you, the commission does recognize some constitutionally protected speech. That is why it has not ruled racial or religious epithets to be profane: because those words can be political. In the FCC's skewed logic, then, the n-word is political speech but BS is not.

So whose community standards is the FCC upholding? The FCC says all America is provoked to "violent resentment" over bullshit. Well, bullshit. Show me the man, woman, or, yes, child in a schoolyard who has not uttered the word. Search Google, and you will find 32 million bullshits. Bullshit is part of our language, culture, and politics. The FCC is not enforcing the nation's community standards. It is enforcing the taboos of a few religious pressure groups.

Note well, then, the religious overtones of the FCC playing the profanity card for the first time in its history. Profanity is by definition "contempt or irreverence for what is sacred." And so who is to say what is sacred? Politicians? Preachers? The Parents Television Council? Or parents?

The FCC is setting itself up not only as America's latter-day ecclesiastical court and nanny but also as our official cultural critic. This year, the commissioners penalized a public TV documentary, The Blues: Godfathers and Sons, for its subjects' language. Yet the commission earlier made exceptions for the Steven Spielberg films Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List. So when black musicians say bad words, it is a crime. When white people in war say them, it is art.

It is not the government's role to decide what has social and artistic value and what does not. That is for the marketplace to decide.

Even FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein acknowledged, on National Public Radio's On the Media, that if the FCC "oversteps in these cases and the court knocks us down it would actually take a constitutional amendment, amending the First Amendment, to get the FCC authority back." That sounds like a golden opportunity. Find one station that broadcast Bush's "shit," file a complaint, dare the FCC to levy its fine—and then dare broadcasters, journalists, artists, and anyone who believes in free speech to stand up and fight for bullshit.