The Supremes rule on “bad words” on TV

The Supreme Court ruled that the FCC can indeed fine broadcasters for airing expletives on television:

The Supreme Court ruled narrowly Tuesday in favor of a government policy that threatens broadcasters with fines over the use of even a single curse word on live television, yet stopped short of deciding whether the policy violates the Constitution.

In six separate opinions totalling 69 pages, the justices signaled serious concerns about the constitutionality of the Federal Communications Commission’s “fleeting expletives” policy, but called on a federal appeals court to weigh whether it violates First Amendment guarantees of free speech.

The court punted on the free speech issue, though that would seem to be the heart of the matter. Linguistically, “bad word” are interesting, since they have a function that goes beyond their literal meaning, a “phatic” dimension in which a word in itself is an act of aggression or abuse.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • subcutaneous

    "Linguistically, “bad word” are interesting, since they have a function that goes beyond their literal meaning, a “phatic” dimension in which a word in itself is an act of aggression or abuse."

    kind of like a "Hate Crime", huh?

    Interested in seeing who comes down on which side of this argument.

  • subcutaneous

    "Linguistically, “bad word” are interesting, since they have a function that goes beyond their literal meaning, a “phatic” dimension in which a word in itself is an act of aggression or abuse."

    kind of like a "Hate Crime", huh?

    Interested in seeing who comes down on which side of this argument.

  • http://www.HempelStudios.com Sarah in Exile

    I've always found "bad words" to be interesting. Growing up we were forbidden to say any words that had any negative sexual content or were pejorative against women. This includes, the ubiquitous and vulgar work "sucks" or even the very common insult that refers to a feminine hygeine product. We were not punished for saying words that were essentially the same as "poo" or a "donkey." My mother also emphasized that it is also the meaning of the word that carries force, so we couldn't use what she called "shoot cussing" words, like "friggen" because it is intended to replace the much more vulgar term.

  • http://www.HempelStudios.com Sarah in Exile

    I've always found "bad words" to be interesting. Growing up we were forbidden to say any words that had any negative sexual content or were pejorative against women. This includes, the ubiquitous and vulgar work "sucks" or even the very common insult that refers to a feminine hygeine product. We were not punished for saying words that were essentially the same as "poo" or a "donkey." My mother also emphasized that it is also the meaning of the word that carries force, so we couldn't use what she called "shoot cussing" words, like "friggen" because it is intended to replace the much more vulgar term.

  • http://www.HempelStudios.com Sarah in Exile

    Nonetheless, I've found that "bad words" can give power to speech, especially if they are not over used. At the co-op studio I hear the "f-word" so many times that it might have well been the word "like." If a person who never curses were to use the word, however, people would sit up an listen!

    I wrote a blog post with lots of naughty words one time when I was angry. It was powerful and conveyed the meaning of my anger. Not wanting to offend my readers, I edited it and it became an impotent post. Was offending my readers worth it? For a blog, I didn't think so. But are naughty words ever useful in literature or speech?

  • http://www.HempelStudios.com Sarah in Exile

    Nonetheless, I've found that "bad words" can give power to speech, especially if they are not over used. At the co-op studio I hear the "f-word" so many times that it might have well been the word "like." If a person who never curses were to use the word, however, people would sit up an listen!

    I wrote a blog post with lots of naughty words one time when I was angry. It was powerful and conveyed the meaning of my anger. Not wanting to offend my readers, I edited it and it became an impotent post. Was offending my readers worth it? For a blog, I didn't think so. But are naughty words ever useful in literature or speech?

  • fws

    freedom of speech is always good. the supremes whimped out.

  • fws

    freedom of speech is always good. the supremes whimped out.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Sir_Tickletext Brave Sir Tickletext

    And even in my own post I see that I have spelled out "damn" but not "the f-word." Similar to the "G-d" construction.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Sir_Tickletext Brave Sir Tickletext

    And even in my own post I see that I have spelled out "damn" but not "the f-word." Similar to the "G-d" construction.

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/Sir_Tickletext Brave Sir Tickletext

    It is telling that the court is aiming at obscenity and vulgarity but not profanity.

    I have far more tolerance for vulgarity (references to bodily functions, etc.) than profanity (vain naming, invocations of divine wrath). As the word vulgar implies, objections to vulgarity were once driven by class-based aversions to the low, filthy lives of the common people. There are questions of taste and stewardship of language of course, and so vulgarity should probably be avoided for the most part. But profanity is utterly indefensible from a Christian perspective.

    The Christian perspective is in a real cultural minority. In olden days, the days of yore, that is, the profane words were the real taboo. In fact they were outlawed for some time, and you can look in the OED and find a whole array of substitute swear words that arose in the seventeenth century, such as "zounds" and "zooks" (referring to Christ's wounds and "hooks" or wounded hands). Today the obscene is a much stronger taboo. Particularly sexual obscenity. Especially the f-word. If you get really angry and you want to shock or verbally maim someone you don't damn them, you f-word them. Sex today is not just any noun but the name of a god. And that god, as the f-word suggests, is violent in will, dominating, and power-hungry, and the people who exhale f-words so frequently pay fitting homage to that god with remarkable religiosity.

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/Sir_Tickletext Brave Sir Tickletext

    It is telling that the court is aiming at obscenity and vulgarity but not profanity.

    I have far more tolerance for vulgarity (references to bodily functions, etc.) than profanity (vain naming, invocations of divine wrath). As the word vulgar implies, objections to vulgarity were once driven by class-based aversions to the low, filthy lives of the common people. There are questions of taste and stewardship of language of course, and so vulgarity should probably be avoided for the most part. But profanity is utterly indefensible from a Christian perspective.

    The Christian perspective is in a real cultural minority. In olden days, the days of yore, that is, the profane words were the real taboo. In fact they were outlawed for some time, and you can look in the OED and find a whole array of substitute swear words that arose in the seventeenth century, such as "zounds" and "zooks" (referring to Christ's wounds and "hooks" or wounded hands). Today the obscene is a much stronger taboo. Particularly sexual obscenity. Especially the f-word. If you get really angry and you want to shock or verbally maim someone you don't damn them, you f-word them. Sex today is not just any noun but the name of a god. And that god, as the f-word suggests, is violent in will, dominating, and power-hungry, and the people who exhale f-words so frequently pay fitting homage to that god with remarkable religiosity.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/ServusDei ServusDei

    I am somewhat worried about any sort of censorship. Do not misunderstand me, I detest gratuitous language, whether vulgar, obscene, or profane. I do not even own a television because I cannot stand most television programs or (often worse) the commercials. Of course, I'm guilty of watching and enjoying certain crude films, so make of that what you will.

    Censorship only works while your side is in power. As soon as somebody else gets in power, and decides saying words like 'Jesus' or 'God' in any sense are offensive to pagans and should be censored, then it becomes a bit more serious. As long as we are a democracy, then we are not guaranteed that 'our side', whatever that is, will remain in power.

    Either freedom of speech extends to television or it does not. If you don't like what is on television, then don't watch television. The problem may not be so much with the suppliers of filth, but with the large demand for it. Perhaps the Church should be more focused on dealing with the demand than with the supply?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/ServusDei ServusDei

    I am somewhat worried about any sort of censorship. Do not misunderstand me, I detest gratuitous language, whether vulgar, obscene, or profane. I do not even own a television because I cannot stand most television programs or (often worse) the commercials. Of course, I'm guilty of watching and enjoying certain crude films, so make of that what you will.

    Censorship only works while your side is in power. As soon as somebody else gets in power, and decides saying words like 'Jesus' or 'God' in any sense are offensive to pagans and should be censored, then it becomes a bit more serious. As long as we are a democracy, then we are not guaranteed that 'our side', whatever that is, will remain in power.

    Either freedom of speech extends to television or it does not. If you don't like what is on television, then don't watch television. The problem may not be so much with the suppliers of filth, but with the large demand for it. Perhaps the Church should be more focused on dealing with the demand than with the supply?


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