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Expletive Not Deleted

        Language policing suffered a setback this week: a federal appeals court struck down a new Federal Communications Commission indecency policy imposing sanctions on the broadcast of occasional or “fleeting" expletives.  The FCC has long held the inappropriate power to regulate “dirty words,” pursuant to a famous 1975 Supreme Court decision upholding the sanctioning of a provocative George Carlin radio monologue; but that decision was interpreted narrowly so as not to prohibit occasional or isolated utterances.  During the Bush Administration, the FCC changed its policy, rather abruptly, and in the view of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, rather illegally:  The Court held that Fox could not be fined because Cher uttered the word “fuck” during a music awards show, while Nicole Ritchie used the words “shit” and “fucking,” and that NBC could not be fined because Bono described his Golden Globe Award as “fucking brilliant.”

        Yes, federal judges should have weightier matters to ponder than Nicole Ritchie’s vocabulary, but blame the FCC for making a federal case of it.  Or blame Congress for giving federal bureaucrats the power to decide what words broadcasters may and may not air and the discretion to impose prohibitive fines that make even media conglomerates shudder.  Or blame the obsession with the “dirty” or “hateful” words shared by virtually all censors, right and left.  Liberals who think words like “kike,” “nigger,” or “cunt” should be unprintable ought to refrain from mocking conservatives who want to ban the words “fuck” and “shit.” 

        To people obsessed with “indecency,” the broadcast of these common expletives is a very unfunny, virtual assault on America’s families.  FCC Chair Kevin Martin worries that someone may now say “fuck” during prime time, “when children are most likely to be in the audience.”  Martin excoriated the decision by a “New York Court” and warned “if we can’t prohibit the use of the words “fuck” and “shit” during prime time, Hollywood will be able to say anything they want, whenever they want.”   As an AP report in the New York Times slyly noted, however, Martin himself “used the 'F-word' six times and the 'S-word' four times in his statement.”  Minors beware. 

    A New York Times editorial praised the 2nd Circuit’s decision in this case, but over at the Wall Street Journal, editorialists are exercised about the fracas over another word:  Liberals opposing the nomination to the federal bench of Mississippi state court judge Leslie Southwick have condemned his concurrence in a decision holding that a state social worker should not be fired for using the word “nigger.” 
   
        This case, Richmond v Mississippi Department of Human Services, involved an effort by a state agency to fire social worker Bonnie Richmond for referring to a co-worker (outside her presence) as a “good ole nigger.”  Richmond apologized to her co-worker, who testified at an administrative hearing that she found the comment offensive and derogatory and suggested that she had been hurt by it; but she said “it was not like there was any real big problem associated with the incident.”   The state board hearing this case found that the Department of Human Services had insufficient cause for firing Richmond; the state court on which Leslie Southwick sat upheld that finding (in a decision that Southwick did not write.)
   
        Liberal groups like the Alliance for Justice (a group that I respect and support) may have good reason to oppose Southwick’s nomination, but they do not include his concurrence in this case.  Richmond’s isolated racial slur, however deplorable, her “fleeting expletive” (for which she apologized) should not be considered actionable workplace harassment and a firing offense anymore than uttering the word “fuck” during prime time should be considered actionable indecency.  People so obsessed with words should take seriously the meaning of these two: Free Speech.


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