The Daily Stern: The profane edition

The Daily Stern: The profane edition

: THE RIGHT TO PROFANITY: The more I think about this the more I come to believe that profanity — treating the sacred with contempt or irreverence — is what free speech is all about.

And so it is all the more appalling that the FCC — in the post-Bono-F-word era — has moved to censor profane speech. (See Ernie Miller’s illuminating and insightful posts on the topic here, here, and here.)

The FCC has its own definition of profanity.

The FCC: “language that denotes certain of those personally reviling epithets naturally tending to provoke violent resentment or denoting language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”

The English language: “Marked by contempt or irreverence for what is sacred.”

As Ernie Miller points out, by decreeing Bono’s F-word profane — by decreeing anything profane for the first time in its history — the FCC has opened the door to government regulation (read: government censorship) of speech that goes far beyond sexual and excretory talk.

First, there is the matter of religion. Profanity is usually defined as blasphemy. Sacred is usually defined as holy and religous. The FCC is setting a regulatory precedent that gets dangerously close to religious beliefs and codes that are none of the business of government: a First Amendment double-whammy.

Second, there is the matter of hate speech. Ernie argues convincingly that if the F-word is a “personally reviling epithet” that “provoke violent resentment” then certainly, the N-word fits that description and shouldn’t it be regulated? And the other F-word. And the K-word. And….

Third, I came to realize that this opens the door to regulation of politically incorrect speech — that which offends. And, oh, man, there is so much that offends so many these days.

Finally, look again at that dictionary definition. Tearing down the sacred cows and subjecting them to irreverence or contempt is what free speech is all about!

We have a right to be profane about a President or anyone in power or what they do: F Bush! or F Kerry or F their war or F their taxes or F their laws about the word F! We have a right to be profane about God and church and kiddie-diddling priests. We have a right to be profane and offensive about sex — as Dan Savage pointed out yesterday, it was profane and offensive by the definitions of some — but necessary — to talk about anal sex, for example, at the start of the AIDS epidemic. We have the right to be profane. That is what the First Amendment protects above all. It’s not unoffensive, safe, middle-of-the-road speech it protects. It’s profane speech.

: SPEAKING OF PROFANITY: See the story of’s Mark Morford being taken to the woodshed for using the F-word on his online column. (See also Morford’s email to his supporters.)

I don’t point this out because it has anything to do with government; it doesn’t. And I do believe that SFGate has the right to set its no-no-word policy (the same way I do) for whatever reason (for me, it’s so I don’t get blocked; for them, I’m just betting it’s advertisers).

I just add this because it indicates the hypersensitivity to F-words out there these days. It’s like “Niagara Falls” in the old Abott and Costello routine: An F-word triggers an autonomic American response today.

  • sol

    Rethink that, Jeff. Get stuck in a police-state like the old Soviet Union or the present Cuba and ask yourself which is more important a right, to be profane publicly or to actively, vocally or in writing advocate that things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are good. People who hate freedom don’t consider individual rights ‘profane’ they consider them ‘good’ and hence to be abolished. The people who founded and ran the old Soviet Union were what is called ‘evil’. People who hate what is good.

  • michael

    Didn’t the FCC make a ruling (or at least consider ruling) that there is a difference between saying f**k when referring to sex vs. saying f**k simply as a expression of shock or awe – like saying “wow”? (The former deemed unacceptable while the latter is ok)

  • KMK

    They reversed it Michael. Originally Bono was OK with his “f brilliant” and then they ruled on it again and said it wasn’t OK but issued no fines in the matter.

  • exactly KMK,
    Powell ruled as an Adult on that first one re: Bono and the Globes. He said when used as an adjective it was fine.
    Then Post-Superbowl he reversed himself but refused to fine anyone.
    My biggest problem with the FCC in 2004 is theyre so incredibly inconsistant and seem to be happy being that way.
    Just tell everyone the rules in a clear manner and tell everyone what the fines will be, and then act accordingly.
    When they fine Howard for something he said in 2001 but wont fine Bono or Oprah it’s easy to claim prejudice against Stern.
    and although I agree with you Jeff on this post, especially on the first point about religion/blasphemy… wasnt Niagra Falls the Three Stooges, and not Lou and Bud?

  • Ga-ne-sha

    The FCC on “profanity”: “language that denotes certain of those personally reviling epithets naturally tending to provoke violent resentment or denoting language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”
    Offhand, sounds like a national speech code to me, based upon the subjectivity of being “offended” or “reviled”, thus allegedly mechanistally damaged or at least sort of physically “harrassed” — which is absurd, as the response or effect actually relies on the offended allowing themselves to be offended, provoked, or reviled.
    This is not a matter of some mechanistic automatic production of “being provoked”, etc.. I’m sick of deterministic models of our selfs which disallow our own willful response, whatever it might be.
    “Naturally” provoked — what crap, as though the response to words is a matter of reflexive self-defense, or we can’t help ourselves in our thought production. It “just happens”. Bullshit [objectively bullshit]!

  • Otter

    It’s like “Niagara Falls” in the old Abott and Costello routine: An F-word triggers an autonomic American response today.
    Excuse me? I’m not that old (I have no idea what Abbott and Costello bit you’re talking about, for example), but I certainly don’t remember a time when American newspapers, television and radio were filled with people saying “fuck” all the time. On the contrary, since childhood I’ve been hearing how book-burning fundamentalist Puritans are taking us back to the middle ages and every year society and popular culture gets smuttier. Meanwhile, I saw a hilarious All In The Family episode the other day (the Lionel Jefferson wedding episode) that would NEVER, EVER have been made today for fear of offending leftist critics.
    Incidentally, I’m relieved to hear Mark Morford is actually a “humor columnist”. Not that he’s at all funny, but at least the Chronicle isn’t simply publishing a lunatic.

  • KMK

    Tony – You are both right. It’s originally from a Three Stooges movie, “Gents Without Cents” made in 1944. Curly says “Niagara Falls” and Moe turns on him and launches into the speech, slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch…. Oh I feel old. It was done in the Abbott and Costello movie entitled “Lost in A Harem”. It was also in an episode of “I Love Lucy” An old vaudeville actor gives her an acting lesson every time Lucy says “Martha,” he hits her. I read a book a looong time ago that said it had been a burlesque or vaudeville routine before it went into movies. Although useless I guess I should be happy I can remember it.

  • very nicely done KMK!

  • alkali

    michael writes:
    Didn’t the FCC make a ruling … that there is a difference between saying f**k when referring to sex vs. saying f**k simply as a expression of shock or awe – like saying “wow”?
    This happens to be the MPAA’s unofficial position on whether a couple usages of “f**k” will get a film a PG-13 or an R; maybe that’s what you’re thinking of.
    Re: JJ’s post in general — I can’t say I disagree too much with any of it, although I continue rolling over in my head whether there shouldn’t be different rules for broadcast radio, as opposed to satellite or anything else you need to be an adult to access.

  • Sydney Carton

    I really don’t see this as a free speech issue at all.
    Walking down the street, you can be profane as you want. No one will arrest you or stop you. No government official, even if it is Michael Powell or any other member of the FCC, will or can do anything about that (assuming it doesn’t constitute harassment or something other than speech).
    But saying it on a public airwaves makes all the difference, because that is about PROPERTY RIGHTS. The public, aka: the government, owns those airwaves. The FCC licenses them to radio stations. As with any other property licensing right, the owner sets the conditions for the use of the license. Part of those conditions is are restrictions on profane materials. The true owners of the airwaves, aka: the public, are setting conditions through their elected representatives and appointed officials at the FCC that they will not tolerate F-words used endlessly on their property.
    Now, obviously, if the FCC starts regulating the speech non-public property interests, like cable TV, that’s a different story altogether and is certainly troubling.
    To defeat the FCC here, you’ll have to somehow change the system whereby the airwaves and radio frequencies are not public anymore, but private, and then set up a system whereby encroachers on frequencies will be settled in the private arena, probably through the courts. It’s a radical innovation, not impossible, but highly improbable. Moreover, there might be a Supreme Court case or two which would require reversal, becuase I’m pretty certain they declared the airwaves to be public property.

  • The F word and expression of it isn’t the issue. It’s the context.
    Same goes for a Doonesbury panel next week that has the phrase “Son of a Bitch” in it. A lot of newspapers are running it, because it’s in the context of a war description. But many are choosing to move the strip elsewhere that day. It’s not the phrase that’s so bothersome; it’s the fact that it’s right under Jeffy and Dolly and Not Me.

  • KMK

    See it pays to have old people in the thread. Sydney go read this article. Your thinking is right in line with the problems pointed out way back when.
    The Property Status of Airwaves
    Mind you, this was written in 1964. Who knew it would still be a topic in 2004.
    And God Bless google.

  • Sydney identifies the arguments that must be addressed to rationally discuss the issue.
    I could not care less what Ayn Rand thought forty years ago about anything.
    Some people spend WAAAAAAY too much time thinking about Howard Stern as a poster boy for free speech. This is not a free speech issue; it is a broadcasting issue. They are not the same thing. Those who don’t like the FCC imposing the barest of standards for profanity can try to get Powell fired; but to go to the wall over Sphincterine and salad tossing is to claim there are no standards worth having for broadcasting.
    I’d be stunned if there were any real public support for a precious Constitutional right to discuss deviant sexual practices over public airwaves at 7:30 in the morning. Call me kooky!

  • KMK

    Congratulations Jeff B. You didn’t even read the article which backs up Sydney’s thinking and tossin salad was mention by Oprah at 4 in the afternoon, when your wife and kids are watching tv not 9:30 am by Stern, when your kids are in school. Stern, by the way, referenced a David Copperfield. So much for educating yourself on a topic.

  • Sydney Carton

    I actually think that it’d be quite possible to have a private system of radio frequencies. But the fact of the matter is, we do not have that right now. To get there, as I said, you’d have to overturn several Supreme Court decisions and pass some pretty fundamentally upsetting legislation.
    Whether that is a good idea or not is irrelevant to the discussion at hand (I think it probably might be a good idea). Right now, ownership and property rights are vested with the government, and they license the property to other radio stations. This is not a freedom of speech issue, but a property rights issue.

  • Sydney Carton

    BTW – good article. I was actually reading parts of Atlas Shrugged last night. But in all fairness, it had nothing to do with my thinking on this. :)

  • A-men, Jeff, and Holy F’n Ghost Power, too. (I refrain from the full invocation in respect of YOUR pragmatic no-word rule). You are right to hammer on this as a religious question, and to tie it to the large issue of delicate speech. PC speech campaigns are are also religiously rooted, the direct descendent of the temperance movement. Things are getting bad. Friend of mine, unnamed for obvious reasons, tells me that NPR required him to change a report from “The Bible is a mix of myth and history” to “a mix of hymn and history.” Even so, he received an uncommon amount of email accusing him of anti-Christian hate speech for suggesting that it was anything but fact. The speech warriors, the literalists, and those screeching for “objectivity” in the news are comrades-in-arms. As Kos said about some less-fortunate souls, screw ’em.

  • KMK

    Sydney – Atlas Shrugged, excellent, an objective approach to concept formation, ethics, and politics, in other words question everything. No wonder I liked your post. I thought your post was great. Right in keeping with current and not so current thinking.
    The article I referenced has been used again and again this article is from 1996. It’s an old/current debate. Good for you!

  • fine, context it is the:
    when Howard Stern suddenly starts getting fined and dropped from florida and ohio markets After he says that he will vote for “anyone but Bush” then this becomes a free speech issue.
    Stern was being Stern for the last 20 years. The last time he was fined was 10 years ago. To pretend that his current situation with the FCC is a coincidence is hogwash.
    His current drama is nothing but context.
    And we all know it will go away when Bush loses the election.

  • that should be… context it is, then:

  • Harry

    “An F-word triggers an autonomic American response today.”
    Jeez, Jeff: if you want to see evidence of “autonomic response,” go back and re-read some of your own postings on this subject over the last few weeks. Or perhaps it’s just monomania. Either way, skipping through the “daily stern” rants to find something more interesting to read is getting tedious.

  • Sydney Carton

    Heh. KMK, I wish I could share your enthuasium. Unfortunately, I’m an orthodox Catholic, so I must dissent a bit from several of Ryand’s conclusions. I don’t think that the golden rule is incompatible with much of objectivism, though.

  • Homer

    Just a little reminder. The FCC was set up to police the radio spectrum under a 1933 international treaty. That makes it foreign policy, and nobody, I mean nobody is going to touch this with a 10 foot pole, not in this election year.

  • KMK

    I’m not so much enthusiastic as I am optimistic. Ryand gave me a question all and that’s OK attitude as opposed to accept her interpretation. But there is room for all. I was raised Roman Catholic so I know what you mean. I was also raised American red, white and blue. I hold the Constitution and the Bill of rights as sacred as I do my Bible. With that comes the understanding of diversity. So, here we are in 2004 discussing the same thing they did in 1964. So much for progress. lol.

  • KMK-
    Thanks for the snarky remark about educating myself. It really hurts!
    Perhaps I confused my FCC complaints – maybe it was Sphincterine at 7:30 in the morning. That changes the essential argument about FCC rules against such things during such hours not even the tiniest bit. Congratulations on that bit of sophistry though — well done!

  • person of choler

    Jarvis, what DO you imbibe, inhale, ingest, or inject that sets you to gibbering like this?
    Freedom of speech is “treating the sacred with contempt or irreverence”? Huh?
    I’d like think that we should be free to bash other institutions besides religion – government is one thing that comes to mind.
    Stalin was perfectly happy to have his subjects badmouth religion during his reign. Does that mean that The Soviet Union had freedom of speech during his tenure?
    The memory of Dr. Martin Luther King seems to have acquired some aspects of sacredness. Does that mean we get to refer to him as a ni…. [Sound of someone being choked].

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes

    May I call people:
    “niggers”, “kykes”, “greasers”, “micks”, “spades”
    “wops”, etc., etc. without fear of censorship?
    If not, why not?

  • Andy Freeman

    I appreciate the clarity.
    According to Jarvis, free speech is Stern’s right to call Bush a pussy and interview folks about their sex lives. It’s not about my right to engage in political speech. After all, if my speech was worth protecting, I’d work for a media outlet.
    I like Stern and boobies. But, if I had to choose between Stern/boobies and political speech by ordinary people, I’d make a different choice than Jarvis has made.
    Of course, if political speech by ordinary people was protected, Stern would come along for free. The opposite is not true, as the status quo shows.

  • Jeff, you quote and link to the dictionary definition of “profane,” not “profanity.”
    The definition of “profanity” ( )
    from the same source you used includes:
    “Abusive, vulgar, or irreverent language.” The first two words match up very well with the FCC definition: “language that denotes certain of those personally reviling epithets naturally tending to provoke violent resentment [that means abusive] or denoting language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance [that means vulgar].”
    Of course, the definition of “profane” fits the rant you wanted to make a lot better than the definition of “profanity.” But does that really excuse your saying that you are giving us the “English language” definition of “profanity” when you are actually giving the definition of “profane”?

  • bob

    You’ve gone to great effort to explain the two definitions, but failed to mention one thing: that the FCC doesn’t prevent broadcasters from “treating the sacred with contempt or irreverence.” It would take only a few minutes of watching TV or listening to the radio to realize that your claim is without merit. Amusingly so.
    You’ve taken a secondary (or even primary) definition of a word and applied it invalidly to another us of the word. That’s a game best left to children, though I suspect most would know better.
    Your attempt to convince civil libertarians that this is (part of) our battle is only undermined by rhetorical games.