Civil Liberties

How John Adams' Ass Nearly Suffocated the First Amendment


Paul Levinson, who teaches communication and media studies at Fordham, gives a nice talk recently posted at MensNewsDaily about "flouting the First Amendment" when it comes to cussing and fussing about cussing in various forms of media. Lengthy snippets, dark hilarity ensues:

Anyway, somebody in the town mumbled, "Why are they firing the cannons now? John Adams is gone. They're firing the cannons at his ass," and that is a direct quote. "They're firing the cannons at his ass."

Well, a friend of his, a town drunkard by the name of Luther Baldwin, basically responded, "I wish they'd fire the cannons through John Adams's ass." Well, unfortunately for Baldwin, there were a few people standing by who were known as Federalists, that is people who supported John Adams's party and they promptly called over some constables and had Baldwin arrested for being disrespectful and threatening of the President. I guess disrespectful because he uttered the word "ass"; threatening because of what he said about the cannonball. A few days later – to show you how absurd things were back in 1798 – a New York newspaper by the name of The New York Argus published an editorial. Now The New York Argus was run by Jeffersonians; they were against what John Adams was doing, so in their editorial they said, "You know this is really absurd. They arrest this drunk in Newark because he said he wanted to fire a cannonball at John Adams's ass – how can that possibly be considered a danger? Why, the ass of John Adams is far too disgusting a target for anyone to look at long enough to fire a cannonball at it!" And guess what? The Feds came after The New York Argus because they were being disrespectful of the President.

That's a funny story, but nonetheless it is extremely serious because seven years after the First Amendment becomes a supreme law of the land, it is sat upon and nearly suffocated by John Adams's ass….

Last year, Fox…had a cartoon called Family Guy, which a few years earlier in the late 1990s had aired an episode with someone's bare ass. In a cartoon. A cartoon figure's bare backside. Well, Fox was so upset in 2004—I guess they didn't want to offend George Bush, their biggest patron, ya know, where would they be then?—that when Family Guy was brought back, they pixilated, in other words blurred out, the baby's backside and the father's backside, too. A cartoon baby's backside! They went to the effort of pixilating it because they were afraid the FCC would take umbrage….

The House of Representatives today, just today (that's what I like about giving this talk, I always have some new material to draw upon) passed a law, a constitutional amendment that would not allow desecration of the American flag. I have to admit when I first heard this, I almost had an ironic mixed feeling because at least they're showing that the Constitution has to be respected. That's not what the FCC is doing, which is just stomping on the First Amendment without even acknowledging that that's a problem. But it shows in what direction America is going, and now we have to hope that the state legislatures don't ratify that amendment because if we do have a constitutional amendment that makes it illegal to burn or desecrate the flag what will be next? Will it be illegal to criticize the flag? Will it be illegal to criticize the President?

Whole thing here.

Levinson mentions in passing both the good ideas and weak resolve of former FCC chairman Michael Powell, who pushed for treating broadcast radio and TV the same as newspapers, books, and cable (and whose courage faltered in the wake of the Janet Jackson's nipple exposure during a Super Bowl that was far less interesting). Reason interviewed Powell a few years back and it is indeed appalling to see the FCC going in precisely the direction of trying to regulate cable and satellite and levying fines whereever it can for fleeting profanity. The mediaverse beyond the FCC's reach is vast and growing, and here's hoping it stays that way.