think tank

FCC's indecency laws have long arm, no legs

Sumner Redstone was sitting by himself in the lobby of the Four Seasons. I thought it was strange that his handlers would leave the chief of the Viacom media empire alone. After introducing myself, I told him I liked the speech he was about to give as I had read the advance copy.

"I think every journalist in America should hear that speech," he said.

I agreed; after all, it represented no extra work for me. I get paid to pay attention to speeches given by the rich and powerful. In the speech, Redstone criticized the FCC for letting a few people manipulate the commission, forcing the government to sew fear among the ranks of news and entertainment writers and executives.

CBS, one of Redstone's enterprises, is in a pitched battle with the commission over just some of these issues. It also has deals pending before the FCC, opening the company up for some very clever mischief.

Redstone's speech was also cleverly mischievous. He attacked groups like the Parents Television Council and the American Family Assn. for "papering" the commission with complaints over programs' allegedly indecent content, without directly attacking the commission. There was some muttering at the Media Institute's dinner that he was taking a risky stance by poking the bear, even if he was poking it with a somewhat crooked stick.

My complaint with Redstone's speech is that he didn't poke the bear hard enough. I wanted him to take a pointed stick and shove it in the bear's, eh-hem, eye.

After the speech, I was home watching TV. The "Eyes on the Prize" documentary was back on PBS after a convoluted copyright battle. The "Bridge to Freedom" episode about the Selma-to-Montgomery March was on.

The late James Foreman, executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, appeared on-screen. He was wearing overalls and was exhorting the crowd. According to a transcript, he said:

"It's not just the sheriff of this county or the mayor or the police commissioner or George Wallace. This problem goes to the very bottom of the United States. And you know, I said it to them and I will say it again: If we can't sit at the table, let's knock the fucking legs off, excuse me."

My first thought was: That's actionable. In some ways, Foreman's quote may put the "Bridge" episode more at risk than the 2003 Golden Globes show in which Bono's "fucking brilliant" crack led the commission to rewrite its "fleeting references" regulation. Under the new rule, amplified by a string of decisions in March, broadcasters are responsible for a slip of the tongue.

Public broadcasting isn't immune. The commission proposed a fine for Martin Scorsese's documentary "The Blues" for similar utterances. Foreman's fleeting utterance came in a nearly 20-year-old documentary. It could have been bleeped or otherwise edited. It wasn't.

I've never bought the notion that the nation is up in arms about "indecent" speech. If the nation was, then why would shows like "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood" be hits? Redstone apparently isn't buying it either.

"Give the government the tools to punish those it doesn't like or silence what it doesn't want to hear and you undermine democracy," he said. "Give people the tools to choose what they see and hear and you enhance democracy."

The legal battle over indecent speech isn't the life-and-death struggle depicted in "Eyes on the Prize," but it is a battle over one of our basic civil rights. It makes me wish someone in 2006 would have the guts to knock the fucking legs off in this battle over our civil rights.
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