Steve Chapman

When former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, Americans were more moved by it than by any other soldier's death in that war. There was intense interest, particularly in Phoenix, where he had played. But local TV stations dropped coverage of his memorial service as it was going on.

Why? Because some of the speakers used bad words. His brother Richard, for example, said, "He's not with God. He's f---ing dead."

It was an honest statement at a public event. But airing it could have cost a TV station a large fine from the Federal Communications Commission -- or even its license to broadcast.

The FCC has a policy against vulgar language, even in brief, unscripted outbursts. So broadcasters who know what's good for them do their best to avoid it, no matter how newsworthy, appropriate or even revealing it may be.

The Fox TV people need no reminder. In 2002, the network carried the Billboard Music Awards, where singer Cher used the F-word in reference to her detractors. The FCC moved to impose penalties on the network. But this week, a federal appeals court ruled the agency's ban on "fleeting expletives" unconstitutional.

Americans generally take a wary view of government interference and control in their lives. But for decades, federal regulators, acting at the behest of Congress and the president, have presumed to tell TV and radio stations what they can and cannot broadcast, which also means telling audiences what they may and may not hear.

Never mind that the First Amendment says Congress "shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." Elsewhere, that means what it says. The government may not ban profanity in movies, CDs, e-mails, magazines, newspapers, websites, leaflets, T-shirts or bumper stickers. Only broadcasters are subject to these paternalistic dictates.

The reason offered by the Supreme Court in days of yore is that broadcasting is "uniquely pervasive" in American life. But today, it's barely more pervasive than other media, like cable TV and the Internet, that are immune from censorship.

This selective treatment is beginning to look like Tyrannosaurus Rex: fierce and terrifying but unsuited for the 21st century. The rules for over-the-air media no longer make any sense, and the Supreme Court may no longer be able to avoid acknowledging that reality.

The FCC has excelled in proving that federal officials cannot be trusted to make sensible or even intelligible decisions about what should be allowed. They barred a common reference to bovine excrement, but allowed the insulting use of an equally coarse term for male genitalia.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate