When Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement, President Obama promised he would appoint someone like Stevens, who "knows that in a democracy, powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens."
In the world of politics, that phrase is self-explanatory. In the cultural arena, it's murkier. When it comes to First Amendment cases on broadcast indecency, who is the "powerful interest" and who was the "ordinary citizen"? The roles are now reversed. The president can't use that analogy because the powerful interests are now in Hollywood, facing the millions of regular Americans who oppose graphic violence, gratuitous sex and avoidable profanity on television. Sadly, judges like Stevens have labored ever harder to protect perverse televised "expression" like orgy scenes or "wardrobe malfunctions" on CBS as somehow the sun-kissed summit of all free-speech causes.
It wasn't always so. Back in 1978, Justice Stevens wrote for the majority in the FCC vs. Pacifica "seven dirty words" case, ruling that the Federal Communications Commission had an important governmental objective in ensuring that children be protected from broadcast obscenities. Comedian George Carlin's "Filthy Words" routine, heavily "seasoned" with F-bombs and S-words, was aired without any edits or bleeps on a Pacifica-owned radio station in New York City, which caused one of those "ordinary citizens" to petition the FCC to put an end to it.
For the majority, Stevens ruled, "There is no basis for disagreeing with the Commission's conclusion that indecent language was used in this broadcast." Moreover, Stevens found that broadcast profanities could be uniquely accessible to children, even children who cannot read: "Pacifica's broadcast could have enlarged a child's vocabulary in an instant." This caused the FCC to ban dirty words during hours when children could be expected to be watching or listening in the audience.
The legal force of the Pacifica precedent waned over the years with the ascent of cable television, which is not technically on the "airwaves" and therefore has never been included in the FCC's indecency mandate. Claiming the mantle of artistic license, cable TV networks captured viewers (and enraptured TV critics) by pushing the frontiers of acceptable language so far back that even the "seven dirty words" began to lose their taboos.
Sadly, Stevens also "evolved" on the matter.
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