Update: With some fussing, I even got it working from the hard drive, without any need for the cd-rom. Double Woo Hoo!
Fleeting Freedom: The Indecent Assault on Broadcasters
The fleeting expletive case before the Supreme Court is about more than broadcasters’ ability to air dirty words–it’s about whether “community standards” should be allowed to override free speech.
By Don Watkins
As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments Nov. 4 in the so-called fleeting expletive case, Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, it’s clear that much more hinges on its outcome than broadcasters’ ability to air dirty words.
The FCC has had the power to fine broadcasters for “indecent” speech for decades. But following Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction in 2004, the government declared all-out war on indecency. Congress increased the maximum penalty per infraction tenfold, from $32,500 to $325,000; the FCC started issuing fines left and right; and Congressman James Sensenbrenner went so far as to recommend jail time for broadcasters who violated “indecency” guidelines. At the same time, the FCC began issuing fines for fleeting expletives. Suddenly a star’s offhand comment on live TV could cost broadcasters hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the midst of all this, one question never got answered: just what is “indecency”? The Supreme Court had defined it as speech that “depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities and organs in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards.” But which Americans count (and don’t count) as part of the community? Why are they king? And how are broadcasters to divine their supposedly shared standards? In response to these unanswerable questions, the FCC issued a hodgepodge of rulings in specific cases and told broadcasters, in effect, “You figure it out.”
Multiple uses of expletives in Martin Scorsese’s PBS documentary The Blues? Indecent, said the FCC. Multiple uses of those same expletives in the movie Saving Private Ryan? Not indecent. Suggestion of teenage sexual activity on CBS’s Without a Trace? Indecent. Graphic discussion of teen sexual practices on Oprah? Not indecent. Bono’s use of the “F-word” during the 2003 Golden Globe awards? Even the FCC wasn’t sure about that one. Initially it said the word was not indecent, but later changed its mind and started handing out the fleeting expletive fines at issue in FCC v. Fox Television.
So what is a broadcaster to do? Engage in self-censorship, cutting any material that regulators might declare indecent.
Defenders of the war on indecency admit that the FCC’s regulations are murky. But without such restrictions, they say, Americans will be helpless against the stream of offensive programming pumped into their homes: either we allow the government to wield arbitrary power over broadcasters, or we give broadcasters arbitrary power to subject us to filth.
What this argument ignores is that broadcasters’ power is not arbitrary. They must earn their market by offering programming Americans choose to consume. We choose to buy a TV (or not). We choose to pay for cable (or not). We choose which channels we and our children watch. Broadcasters can’t force us to watch offensive programming any more than an author can force us to read an offensive book.
This is the meaning of free speech: people have the right to say whatever they want, no matter how offensive–and we remain free to listen or not. We don’t have to abide by the opinions, prejudices, and errors of our neighbors, but can judge for ourselves whether something is true or false, art or trash, insightful or indecent.
But once the government becomes the enforcer of “community standards,” no speech is safe. How long until, say, the Bible Belt declares that the theory of evolution is offensive, corrupts young minds, undermines community values, and must be suppressed? This question is not academic. Bolstered by the indecency precedent, efforts are already underway to regulate “excessively violent” broadcasts.
And if the government can suppress speech “the community” allegedly deems offensive, then why can’t it force broadcasters to engage in speech “the community” allegedly regards as good? In fact, it already does so: Univision was recently fined $24 million for failing to air a sufficient amount of educational children’s programming. On the anti-indecency movement’s premises, judging the value of programming is not the prerogative of broadcasters, who decide what to air, or viewers, who decide what to watch–it’s the prerogative of “the community” (and its self-appointed spokesmen).
This is what is at stake in FCC v. Fox Television. The question is not whether fleeting expletives are indecent, an issue that individuals have a First Amendment right to decide for themselves. It’s whether the Constitution grants government the power to trample on freedom of speech, using non-objective laws to dictate what we can say and hear on the airwaves. The Supreme Court should take this opportunity to respond with an emphatic “No!” Anything less would be indecent.
Don Watkins is a writer and research specialist at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights. The Ayn Rand Center is a division of the Ayn Rand Institute and promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.”
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I’m voting by mail, so I need to fill out and mail my ballot tomorrow. And wow, I’m just not sure that I can bring myself to vote for Obama. So I might abstain.
If only I could make my choice so funny as Leonard Peikoff’s Podcast #33, I’d be just a wee bit happy about it. As it is, I’m just sick about the whole thing — and very, very worried that we’ll face an even worse choice in 2012.
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Last week, I sent out the following op-ed on abortion — particularly focusing on Colorado’s Amendment 48 — to the various Colorado papers:
Abortion Is a Woman’s Right
Colorado voters face a stark moral choice in this election: vote yea or nay on Amendment 48. That ballot measure would grant fertilized eggs the legal standing of persons–including “inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law”–in the state constitution.
If fully implemented, almost all abortions would be outlawed in Colorado, including in cases of rape, incest, and fetal deformity. Any woman who terminated a pregnancy would be guilty of murder, subject to life in prison or the death penalty. To take the birth control pill, which might sometimes prevent the implantation of an embryo in the womb, would be a criminal act. Miscarriages might be investigated by zealous prosecutors.
Roe v. Wade would not necessarily protect women against these ominous legal controls. Rather, Amendment 48 might be used to challenge that landmark case–or to inspire a nationwide movement for a similar federal constitutional amendment.
Despite its draconian effects, this proposed amendment has gathered solid support from Colorado voters. A recent poll shows that 39% favor it, 50% oppose it, and 11% are undecided.
Why such strong support? Over the past two decades, the religious right has effectively waged a holy war on abortion. Abortion is the murder of an innocent human life, they say. It violates the God-given right to life of a “preborn child.” It is part of a “culture of death.” So most Americans regard abortion as morally wrong except when a pregnancy threatens the woman’s mental or physical health.
Yet the religious right’s attacks on abortion are completely and utterly wrong. They evade the true meaning of the biological facts of pregnancy.
Opponents of abortion claim that embryos and fetuses have the same right to life as babies because they are distinct, living human beings. Undoubtedly, an embryo or fetus is alive, not inert matter. It’s also human–not canine or hippopotamus. Yet every distinct, living skin cell a person washes off in the shower also contains human DNA. A tumor is human tissue distinct from its host. The embryo or fetus is different: it might develop into a born baby. Yet the differences between an embryo or fetus and that born baby are vast.
In the early stages of pregnancy, the embryo has nothing in common with an infant except its DNA. Its form is similar to the embryos of other mammals; it cannot survive outside the womb; it lacks any kind of awareness. To call that clump of cells a “person” is sheer nonsense.
Even when more developed, the fetus is not a biologically separate entity capable of independent action, like a baby. It exists as part of the woman carrying it, wholly contained within and dependent on her. It goes where she goes, eats what she eats, and breathes what she breathes. It lives as she lives, as an extension of her body. It is not yet an individual human life; it is not yet a person.
That situation changes radically at birth. A baby lives a life of its own. Although still very needy, he maintains his own biological functions. He breathes his own air, digests his own food, and moves on his own. He interacts with other people as a creature in his own right, not merely as a part of a pregnant woman. His life must be protected as a matter of right.
So a woman has every right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy–for any reason. If an abortion will protect and further her own life and happiness, then she ought to pursue that option with a clear conscience.
Amendment 48 would obliterate the moral right of every pregnant woman to control her own body. It is based on sectarian religious dogma, not objective facts. Please vote “No” on 48.
Diana Hsieh is the co-author of “Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg Is Not a Person,” an issue paper available at http://www.seculargovernment.us.
I haven’t checked the various papers to see where it has been published, but I do know that the Pagosa Daily Post published it on October 23rd. They then published a a lengthy reply on October 27th. (I won’t reproduce it here; it’s too long and too wrong.) On the 29th, they published a great letter in reply by Gideon Reich of Armchair Intellectual:
Van Horn Opinion Misses the Point
Steve Van Horn’s rebuttal in the Post to Diana Hsieh’s excellent article on abortion shows a complete lack of understanding of the one crucial concept in the abortion debate: Individual Rights. Far from being mythical supernatural endowments implanted at conception, or social conventions subject to popular vote, rights derive from a human being’s nature as a rational being. His existence requires the free exercise of his rational faculty to sustain his own life.
A “right,” as Ayn Rand pointed out, “is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” Thus, the freedom of action that ought to be guaranteed to an individual is the freedom to think and act without interference from others in society for the achievement of his goals, as long as he respects the right of others do the same.
The very first requirement for such a freedom to apply is that the “individual” in question actually be a separate individual in a social context — not a mere potential that is part of another actual individual. As Ms. Hsieh has eloquently shown, the unborn fetus, to say nothing of the embryo or zygote, has not met that requirement.
The pregnant woman, on the other hand, clearly has — and has every moral right to act accordingly.
Thank you for writing such an excellent letter, Gideon!
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In his October 24, 2008 radio show, Rush Limbaugh essentially told Republicans who believe in abortion rights that they should leave the Republican Party:
Good Riddance, GOP Moderates
…We flushed ‘em out. We found out they’re not really Republicans and they’re by no means conservatives, and now they’re gone. Now the trick is to keep ‘em out.
…The minute you say that conservatism includes people who are pro-choice, you’ve destroyed conservatism because conservatism stands for “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness.” Without life, there is nothing else here, and if we’re going to sit around indiscriminately deciding who lives and who dies based on our own convenience, that’s not conservative. Individual liberty. The essence of innocence is a child in the womb who has no choice over what happens to it. Sorry. If we don’t stand up for that person, if the government doesn’t, then nobody will. And if we allow ourselves to get watered down by a bunch of people who are embarrassed over that position, they’re not conservatives.
No problem, Rush. I’ve already sent the following message to numerous Republicans at the local, state, and national level:
I used to support the Republican Party because I believe in individual rights, free markets, a strong national defense, and the right to keep and bear arms.
However, the Republican Party alliance with the religious right on “social issues” like stem cell research, abortion and gay marriage has turned off many former supporters such as myself.
Americans have a right to practice their religion as a purely private matter, and I defend everyone’s right to do so.
But the government should not force one group’s religious views on everyone. Hence, I no longer have a home in any political party. To paraphrase a quote from Ronald Reagan, “I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me.”
Given that Rush Limbaugh has just confirmed that they don’t want members like me, I’m happy to oblige him.
If the Republican Party wants to become the party of the Religious Right, then they will lose big in 2008. And they will deserve to do so.
Update:An Objectivist friend has also contacted us privately to point out that in another show, Limbaugh spoke out to defend individual rights, but as part of a pro-McCain plea. As our friend notes (quoted with his permission):
And let’s not forget that his impassioned defense of individual freedom (which I heard part of, and which by itself was quite good) was made in defense of voting for JOHN MCCAIN… you know, the guy who blames the financial crisis on greedy Wall Street, who dismisses those who pursue profit instead of “service,” who thinks the First Amendment deserves scare quotes, who supports cap and trade, who opposes drilling for oil in Alaska, whose hero is Teddy Roosevelt, who chose religious nut-job and anti-intellectual populist Sarah Palin as his running mate, etc., etc., etc. What a sin it would be to elect that kind of nightmare in the name of *capitalism*!
If McCain and Limbaugh were the only “defenders” of individual rights against the likes of Obama, then our country would be in sorry shape. Fortunately, there are better defenders out there…
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Via ChordStrike: “Though it’s definitely a catchy song, I doubt many people would remember A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’ if it weren’t for its innovative-for-the-’80s half-animated/half-live action video. Recently, some evil genius took a crack at rewriting ‘Take on Me,’ crafting the lyrics as a running commentary describing exactly what’s happening in the song’s iconic video. The results are hilarious. Behold:”
Update: Richard suggested adding a link to the original video, for anyone unfamiliar with it. Here it is:
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How good is your eye at judging spatial relations? Find out here.
Update from Diana: I got a score of 4.76. Beat that! (Really, I’m sure that some of you will. And when you do, you’re welcome to gloat.)
Update from Paul: 3.2 on my second try. I seem to have the most difficulty with the “bisect the angle” portion.