Have you ever tried putting toothpaste back in the tube? Of course, you haven't. It can't be done. But that is exactly what the Federal Communications Commission is trying to do by arguing its continued right to censor and fine broadcast television on standards that date to early in the last century.
It is simply too late. That denial of First Amendment guarantees of free speech is long overdue for abolition in a world where there are no such restrictions on a steadily increasing number of viewing opportunities. Like it or not, the seven deadly words as expressed by comedian George Carlin are ubiquitous in our daily electronic world. And that goes double for the functions and activities they describe.
Yet here is the government determined to maintain some decorum on one segment that has become less and less relevant in our lives with a few exceptions. Whether or not the arguments made before the Supreme Court recently will result in a continued intimidation of broadcast networks and local TV outlets is anyone's guess. Certainly several justices seemed skeptical.
Obviously, the one thing that the FCC has no power to regulate is taste, and that, after all, is the real menace to both the intellectual and moral well being of our society. Violence and sexual allusion and disgusting bathroom humor are the mainstays and keystones of much of what is available to us from broadcast to unregulated cable to the Internet. Some of the "dirtiest" (if that is still a word that has meaning) of the shows on broadcast are of the animated variety where it seems anything goes, and not very subtly.
Dashing to hold a pillow over the screen as my wife and I did or grabbing for the remote to switch the channel are useless gestures. There just isn't anything left to watch that isn't offensive by past standards except old-time movies and pre-1970s reruns. Warnings about the content of R-rated films serve mainly to get the broadcaster or channels off the hook. Actually, it has long been a psychological truism that these notices generally just make the flicks more attractive to youngsters, and if they aren't getting it at home, they will somewhere else.
If that comes across as a poor argument for justifying a freedom of expression, so be it, and, in fact, I agree with that. But this is not the time when Elvis (the Pelvis) Presley was shown on national television only from the waist up to hide his gyrations. Culture, for better or for worse, has moved on. Movies decades ago abandoned the oppressive Hays Office standards -- many of them ridiculous, like showing married couples sleeping in twin beds -- for graded codes. Who were they kidding? Certainly not the kids.
It really makes little sense, no matter how desirable, to single out one segment of an industry for such censorship, especially when doing so seems not only impractical but also nearly unenforceable. An enormous amount of complaints pending at the FCC won't get resolved.
The FCC derives its governance over broadcast radio and television from the theory that the airways are public, that one must have a license to operate in them and, therefore, they are fully subject to regulation. Cable systems are under no such obligations since they do not use airways. They are granted franchises by local jurisdictions. Direct television is a satellite system, which like cable operations, is impacted by the FCC only in its transmission or retransmission of broadcast programming.
All this can get quite complicated. But it seems to me that a better, more equitable approach might be for broadcasters to devise through their own associations a means of self-policing that they might offer the viewing public a safe haven from degrading, graphic behavior so often found on cable shows without sacrificing their First Amendment privileges.
Censorship can be a frightening business in any form, but particularly when it is inequitably applied. The FCC, like the toothpaste tube, is empty when it comes to this aspect of its function, and there is no putting it back.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.