Curiouser and curiouser

Committed to the First Amendment

In dismissing a complaint against WGR(AM) Buffalo, N.Y., the FCC once again has demonstrated how inconsistent, and thus indefensible, its indecency-enforcement policy is. Indecency calls are in the eye of the beholder and change with the political winds. These winds appeared to be blowing from Wonderland.

The FCC has ruled that piss on
in reference to promoting urinal guards with NHL
emblazoned on them and inviting listeners to vote for the player they would most like to urinate on were simply a variant of pissed off, and thus not excretory, and thus not indecent. Sawed-off little prick
also passed muster because, the enforcement bureau said, "the word prick
was not used to 'describe or depict' a sexual activity or organ but was instead used as a vulgar insult."

Applying that standard, you can say any of the seven dirty words as long as you are using them angrily and not descriptively. But hasn't George Carlin's M-word always been an epithet rather than an accusation of incest?

So, if you say, he is pissed, no problem. Even if you used pissed on
as an excretory variant of pissed off
(angry), you're still OK. But say pissed on
and mean it literally, and it's forfeiture time. Of course, you don't have to say the word at all, as the FCC has pointed out in past indecency rulings: "Innuendo may be patently offensive within the meaning of our indecency definition if it is understandable and clearly capable of a specific sexual or excretory meaning, which, in context, is inescapable."

Confused? Who wouldn't be? It begins to sound like a Carlin routine itself. For most of our readers, however, it is serious business. In effect, the FCC's doctrine appears to be: "If you say it but don't mean it (piss on, but really mean pissed off), it's OK, but if you mean it and don't say it explicitly, you're in trouble. (Let's pork, for instance, "is a lewd, inescapable reference to sexual intercourse," the FCC told WQAM[AM] Miami in 2000 in fining the station for a song parody.)

So you can be "vulgar" for the sake of being angry, while "vulgarity" for the sake of art or social change (think Sarah Jones's "Your Revolution"), can be indecent. What if a groundswell of listeners rose up en masse to defend "Revolution"? Doesn't matter. "Neither the statute nor our case law permits a broadcaster to air indecent material merely because it is popular," the commission told KBOO-FM, Portland, Ore., which was fined for playing the song. But what does that say about community standards?

The FCC's indecency standard is a joke, but one nobody gets to laugh at since its capriciousness makes it a threat to every broadcaster. The head of the enforcement bureau signed off on this decision. It should have been the commissioners, since every indecency case is precedent for what the industry can and can't say or show. In this case, though, it might as well have been The Mad Hatter or March Hare.