Almost everyone agrees that broadcasters should be prohibited from broadcasting “indecent” material. And Federal Communications Commission rules, in fact, ban such broadcasts. So let me ask you this: What, exactly, is “indecent” material?
This is the issue argued last week before the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case that challenges how the government regulates indecent broadcasts. Note that the issue is not if the government can regulate such material rather, the question deals with how the rules are enforced.
So, to start, I’d really like to know what “indecent” material is. Not obscene or pornographic material; those materials already have pretty explicit definitions. But “indecent”?
Here’s an example of the problem: The FCC once said a 7-second clip portraying nudity on the television show “NYPD Blue” was indecent; but a 40-second clip portraying nudity in the movie “Catch-22” was not.
Years later, some television stations were afraid to show the movie “Saving Private Ryan” because of the language. Other stations said the language was realistic, and there was no indecency issue.
Now, maybe you feel all of these were indecent. Or maybe you think they were acceptable. But the problem is the arbitrariness of how the Commission decides the issue. Simply put, the Commission hasn’t told broadcasters just what is indecent and what isn’t.
What seems particularly interesting that the broadcasters haven’t asked for permission to show indecent materials. Rather, they are simply asking for clarification of just what the rules are.
In this time of football fever, a sports analogy seems appropriate: It really doesn’t matter what game you are playing, you just have to know what the rules are.