Profanity still isn't norm for TV or society, BYU professor says

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 4 2008 12:12 a.m. MST

PROVO — The Oxford English Dictionary credits the New York Times with being the first to print the term "F-word" in an article 35 years ago.

By 1973, it seems, the word described by that term was employed commonly enough that reporters felt the need to describe it without using it in a family newspaper.

That slice of linguistic history mirrors one of the arguments expected to be made today in the U.S. Supreme Court by Fox-TV: That the F-word should be allowed on broadcast television because Americans use it so often it has lost its former indecent or sexual meaning.

Hold on a just darn minute, says Brigham Young University communications professor Ed Carter.

Carter co-authored a new study that furnishes proof that American society still finds that word and other profanities offensive and limits them without harming the First Amendment.

"If the Federal Communications Commission chooses to regulate profanity, there's a basis for it to do that," Carter said. "It's not futile or impossible or unconstitutional."

A former Deseret News reporter with a law degree, Carter regularly backs the rights of journalists and others found in the First Amendment but said he sees a difference in public free speech and what is piped into living rooms over publicly owned airwaves.

In fact, Carter found, there are many places in society where the F-word and other swear words remain unwelcome.

"Profanity is not, indeed, everywhere," wrote Carter and co-authors Trevor Hall of Boise State University and James Phillips, a BYU graduate student, in an article published in this month's issue of the Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal.

Corporations fire or discipline employees for swearing without violating the First Amendment, for example. Lawyers, judges, public school teachers and students, prison inmates and guards are all subject to discipline, sanctions or penalties for uttering profanities.

Government even regulates the use of profanity by debt collectors, who face federal penalties for cussing.

And family newspapers, of course, still voluntarily decline to publish those words.

"It's certainly not a no-brainer that the F-word should be on broadcast television," Carter said.

In 2004, the FCC announced it would punish broadcasters who aired expletives that describe "sexual or excretory" activities.

The FCC ruled the F-word was indecent and profane when used by Cher and Nicole Richie during the Billboard Music Awards on Fox in 2002 and 2003. The commission did not fine Fox but declared the word indecent and that broadcasters could be fined more than $325,000 in the future.

Fox appealed and won a ruling against the FCC in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The FCC appealed to the Supreme Court.

The issue remains current. Friday, after the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series, their second baseman was caught on live television at a celebratory rally shouting what the Philadelphia Inquirer called an f-bomb.

"World champions!" Chase Utley yelled. "World (expletive) champions!"

Philly radio stations bleeped the expletive. The local television stations apologized.

Arguments today before the Supreme Court will not be televised until the spring after the court declined a C-SPAN request to release tapes of the hearing immediately afterward.


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com

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