David Ortiz And The FCC’s Reconsideration Of Its Broadcast Indecency Policies

On Saturday, at the first baseball game in Boston after a suspension of the one that was scheduled to be played as city police and federal officials were hunting for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, David Ortiz declared at a pregame ceremony, “This is our fucking city. And nobody gonna dictate our freedom. Stay strong. Thank you.” Normally, this is the kind of thing that would have invited a fine, but Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski tweeted on the agency’s official account: “David Ortiz spoke from the heart at today’s Red Sox game. I stand with Big Papi and the people of Boston.”

It was an apparently inconsistency with agency policy that lead Lawyers Guns and Money blogger Erik Loomis to note: “It would be nice if the FCC would more generally assume people are grown-ups and allow the language used in everyday life to be part of mass media on a more general basis. I’m not sure that reserving the word for political occasions where the agency’s head deems it appropriate has much value.”

He may not precisely get his wish. But the good news is that the FCC is opening up comments “on whether the full Commission should make changes to its current broadcast indecency policies or maintain them as they are.” As Eriq Gardner explains further in The Hollywood Reporter:

According to an advance copy of a document set to be published on Friday in the Federal Register, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau and the Office of General Counsel is seeking comments on whether it should maintain current protocol or change with the times on issues including isolated expletives on TV and fleeting instances of non-sexual nudity. The call for comments will surely invite attention from broadcasters who have fought several high-profile legal battles in recent years. Broadcasters believe that it’s time for a change.

In 1978, in FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation, the Supreme Court took a look at comedian George Carlin’s famous monologue, “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” and considered the government’s role in regulating indecency over the public airwaves. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens upheld the FCC’s authority while preaching some vague restraint. “We simply hold that when the Commission finds that a pig has entered the parlor, the exercise of its regulatory power does not depend on proof that the pig is obscene,” he wrote.

This is a significant opportunity to reassess an area of broadcast policy that’s shifted back and forth over time and that observers on every side of the debate have found frustrating. It’s an area where I’ll almost be as curious to read the comments and see how they break down as to see where the final ruling lands, particularly given our current debate over the impact of depictions of violence in the media on real-world acts of violence. And I hope one area of the conversation that emerges is the relative treatments of sexual content, sexual violence, and other categories of violence. If parents really believe that violent media has an enormous real-world effect on their children, I’d expect to see more people writing in to suggest that depictions of violence be treated with similar care and suspicion as depictions of nude bodies or consensual sexuality. And I hope we can have a discussion about the actual relative harms of these depictions, and of fleeting language, uttered in instances in which public figures behave a lot more like human beings than most of the people we actually see on television.