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In Defense of the F-Word

November 13th, 2008

There are many reasons to love the F-word. Most of all, it’s because whenever the F-word shows up, you know people will get interested.

George Carlin said it best when he described it in his classic monologue “Filthy Words”  — “Cute word, kind of … One syllable, short. You know, it’s easy. Starts with a nice soft sound fuh ends with a kuh. Right? A little something for everyone.”

Lately, the F-word’s been pretty busy. Thanks to the F-word, Chase Utley’s role in Philadelphia’s first World Championship in 28 years will not only be characterized by his clutch defensive play during Game 5, but also for his spontaneous use of the offensive during a live broadcast of the Phillies World Series Celebration parade last month.

Perhaps the busiest place the F-word’s been lately is in court. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission kicked off its Supreme Court battle with Fox for U2 lead singer Bono’s adjectival use of the word during an acceptance speech at the 2003 Golden Globes.  Fox had initially gone unpunished by FCC commissioners for Bono’s f*ck-up because – according to policy – it was a “fleeting expletive” used in a non-sexual context. However, the matter was resuscitated when newly appointed commissioners overturned its predecessors’ policy and fined Fox. A fight between the Commission and Fox would ensue, leading the matter to the highest court in the United States.

But this isn’t the first time the F-word’s shown up in court. Lenny Bruce, widely credited for bringing the F-word mainstream through his act’s prolific use of the word, was arrested eight times and went through six obscenity cases against him in four different cities. Mr. Filthy Words himself George Carlin was also at the center of a 1978 Supreme Court case against Pacifica Foundation because a radio station owned by the company played his infamous monologue in total. The ruling, in favor of the FCC, would go on to define its power over “indecent” material in broadcasting.

With this most recent Supreme Court appearance, the use of the F-word is again calling the FCC’s power into question. A ruling against the FCC would overrule the current policy of “indecent” and exclude the occasional unexpected F-bomb outburst from punishment. On the other hand, upholding the policy would punish users of the word regardless of context or intent.

Many against the current policy argue that simply creating stricter rules and levying stiffer fines won’t do anything to avoid spontaneous gaffes like those in question. Others, like the Bush administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, Solicitor General Gregory Garre, insist that lax regulation will result in more frequent “accidents,” even suggesting the extreme example of “Big Bird dropping the F-bomb on ‘Sesame Street.

While the F-word’s not exactly ready for prime time TV, over-regulation could call other FCC policies into question, squeezing our First Amendment rights and changing the traditions of live broadcast as we know it. What could this mean for Saturday Night Live? The Academy Awards? Even network news?

Proper interpretation of the law might be necessary, but let’s not get crazy here. Besides, don’t we really only run the risk of a fowl-mouthed outburst when Sesame Street’s letter of the day is “F?”

Posted Under: Media & Journalism
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