Watching The Wheels

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Can We Resuscitate The First Amendment?

The US Second Circuit Court of Appeals just recently vacated the $1.21 million worth of fines that the FCC levied against ABC for a 2003 episode of NYPD Blue in which an actress’s backside was seen, for a split second, naked.

Similarly, late last year, a unanimous three-judge decision in the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the current FCC “rules” on obscenity as having a “chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here” because it left broadcasters basically swinging in the wind as to what the commission would rule as obscene.

I’m not going into detail on these cases. You can read about them online. What I want to address is what these decisions mean in the larger scheme of things. First, let me put some things out there:

1) The FCC by its very nature and purpose is unconstitutional. An unelected, self-appointed body that determines what we see and hear in broadcast media.

2) The very purpose of the First Amendment of the Constitution was to protect unpopular, even offensive speech. There may not be any pressing need protections for things that everyone agrees with. Or like a gardening show.

3) To break it down even further, as I see it, there is no such thing as bad/profane/obscene language. Words are innocent. We only confer upon them meaning because they have no inherent meaning. We created them.

4) The banning, or “retiring”, of words by any group is unconstitutional according to any rational reading the First Amendment. If you are offended by something someone says, get therapy because you are so controlled by words. Don’t go trying to get laws passed that completely stifle someone’s First Amendment rights. This Amendment is found in what is commonly called The Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791. It is not called The Bill of Really Cool Things You Can Do or Say Until You Piss Someone Off.

The fact that these issues even need debating in a courtroom baffles me to the limit. I mean, if you can read English it’s right there. The idea that lawyers can twist and turn the meaning of direct language because some societal weakling gets offended is just plain wrong. Turn the TV channel. Walk away. Turn the radio dial. Get therapy.

So there is some hope. George Carlin once said: “Words are innocent. It’s the person using them you need to be concerned about.” But all of the above doesn’t preclude the law. If someone is being harassed, then that falls in to laws of privacy, assault/battery, disturbing the peace. Totally different from watching, say, Family Guy.

There were those in Shakespeare’s time who found some of his work obscene. Yet they had no problem with all the female parts being played by boys. Not many people know that. Because in Shakespeare’s day it was considered unseemly for woman to be an actor. It actually was considered by some as being on the same level as a harlot. But how would we react to that today? I mean, we teach Shakespeare in most, if not all, high schools. It is considered classic. Yet, there was a social context in which his plays were written and performed.

This leads to my next point. I have the distinct feeling that many of our elected officials consider our Founding Fathers as primitives. Power corrupts and the United States Constitution did not make any provision for professional politicians.

Leaving behind the short sidetrack, I’ll comment on the ruling pertaining to nudity on television. I don’t really have any strong feelings about it. To me it’s the same thing as the blatant, gratuitous use of autopsies and gore on network dramas. None of these things…none of them are being done for the verisimilitude of the program. It’s for shock and titillation and, ultimately ratings. Do I think there’s something inherently wrong with it? I just don’t see the need for it. I wouldn't campaign to stop it though. Because it's ultimately meaningless.

And I certainly don’t think that any of this will lead to the down-slide of our society. That’s a done deal already. So, as this current administration constantly attempts to, at best, ignore or, at worst, rape the US Constitution we can be assured that nothing will be done about the real problems we face. Like eradicating poverty? Cutting taxes? Getting off the backs of business and wealthy Americans who have earned their way? Rampant crime? And how about stopping a war that absolutely no one knows the reason it is still going on?

Going out on a limb here I would say that those major issues - and many more - are a bit more important than someone saying “damn” too many times on TV, or seeing someone’s butt.

Copyright 2011 by Andrew T. Durham

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