Language censorship goes to court

American culture and jurisprudence are not experiencing their finest hour with a recent U.S. Supreme Court case.

It involves governmental censorship of language used in broadcasting.

Cher and Nicole Richie’s isolated use of vulgar and profane language during prime-time broadcasts some years ago triggered the lawsuit. The government’s position is the existing FCC censorship rules should prevail; the broadcasters maintain the FCC standard is unconstitutionally vague, and times and culture have changed since its enactment.

Regardless of the legal outcome, America’s culture and moral climate are on trial. Some of our celebrities appear to be in a race to the cultural bottom.

They seem determined to discover how much they can get away with before a reaction occurs.

This dispute has far deeper implications than the typical First Amendment legal squabble. It touches on the ability and right of parents to protect young children from the coarser aspects of our so-called “culture.” Certainly no one would deny a parent or guardian the tools to safeguard little ones from crude and lewd language and behavior.

But the usual groups are defending the “anything goes” position. “Art is all about pushing the envelope,” they say. Others go into paroxysms of panic at the least suggestion their perceived First Amendment rights may be curtailed in any way.

So it might be helpful to critically examine some of these points.

The “art is pushing the envelope” argument may have some trace of truth on its face, but a deeper inquiry usually reveals a puerile position best expressed by “I want to do what I want when I want to do it.”

The First Amendment places limits on governmental actions involving freedom of expression.

Citizens invoking the First Amendment must also understand limits on their rights.

The First Amendment is not a safeguard against stupidity, poor taste and sloppy thinking.

The Founders probably assumed the American people would possess good morals and strong character. Hopefully they were right, although there seems to be some evidence to the contrary.

Those who are in the public spotlight for whatever reason – sports, politics or entertainment – have a duty to conduct themselves in a manner that positively reflects our best values.

To do otherwise is to betray the privileged treatment we accord them in our society.

Even those in high places who have only a remote connection with a transgression have a duty to behave proactively and properly.

Ask Joe Paterno.

Perhaps the problem is deeper. Perhaps we as a society have lost our ability or our willingness to speak up when confronted with egregious transgressions of decency.

Some offenders may use the “tolerance” excuse. Others employ the “victimless crime” rationale.

But “tolerance” is never an excuse to overlook wrongdoing, and there is no action that does not have consequences, whether for good or for ill.

We owe it to our society, to ourselves and to our future to maintain high standards of speech and action in our lives and to insist on it in the media.

Our Founders assumed we would, and our children may someday hold us accountable if we don’t.

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