I’m grateful you people don’t get to be the arbiters of free speech. It’s a much more dangerous world than I knew.
Editorial Observer; Fighting for Free Speech Means Fighting for . . . Howard Stern
By ADAM COHENMAY 3, 2004
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Legal rulings about indecency have a way of quickly slipping into ridiculousness, and so it is with the Federal Communications Commission's recent decision imposing $495,000 in fines on Clear Channel for broadcasting an episode of the Howard Stern show. The F.C.C.'s opinion focuses on a program in which the self-proclaimed ''King of All Media'' interviewed the inventor of ''Sphincterine,'' which the commission huffily calls a ''purported personal hygiene product.'' A key factor in its analysis, duly noted in its ''Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture,'' was that the segment contained ''repeated flatulence sound effects.''
Call it the whoopee cushion doctrine. It is hard to believe that the government now regards flatulence jokes, the lamest staple of gag gift stores, as grounds for taking away a broadcast license. But since Janet Jackson's unfortunate wardrobe malfunction, the F.C.C. has been furiously rewriting the rules. Another edict holds that broadcasters can lose their licenses even for ''isolated or fleeting'' swear words, a doctrine arising from a single gerund uttered at the 2003 Golden Globes.
Don't bother calling the commissioners philistines -- they do it themselves. In the Golden Globe ruling, they admit their definition could put D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce off limits. Not surprisingly, though, the F.C.C. has started with Mr. Stern. He has long been a favorite target; more than half of the $4.5 million in fines the F.C.C. has imposed since 1990 has been on him. The payments were once just overhead for his highly profitable show, but with the fines soaring, and broadcast licenses at far greater risk, the economics are dramatically changed. After the $495,000 fine, Clear Channel dropped Mr. Stern from its six stations. He remains on 35 other stations, but no one can say for how long.
It would be hard to quarrel with a broadcaster that dropped Mr. Stern on grounds of taste. Turn on his show or pick up his biography, ''Private Parts,'' and choose your reason, from his peculiar fascination with the sex lives of dwarves to his on-air interrogation of his mother about her sex life. But government fines, not high standards, spurred Clear Channel.
It is Mr. Stern's offensiveness that makes his cause so important. The F.C.C. is using his unpopularity as cover for a whole new approach that throws out decades of free-speech law. The talk right now is over the colorful battles between Mr. Stern and Michael Powell, the head of the F.C.C. But when the headlines fade, the censorious new regime will apply to everyone. The danger it poses to the culture is real.