Originally published: May 3, 2009
Last updated: May 3, 2009 - 12:16pm
[Commentary] In a NYTimes op-ed, Adam Freedman writes that, ultimately, the Fox Television case raises a dichotomy well known to linguists: descriptivism versus prescriptivism — that is, whether to yield to the reality of how language is actually used (descriptivism) or fight to maintain objective standards (prescriptivism). Descriptivists happily accept "impact" as a verb and "my bad" as a form of apology; prescriptivists resist such innovations. As much as one sympathizes with language prescriptivism in general (please, let us all resist "c u l8r"), censorship is necessarily a descriptivist endeavor. Indecency laws are tied to evolving community standards. Times change, notwithstanding the fervent wishes of prescriptivists to keep dirty words dirty. The FCC may have won this round, but the bluenoses can't declare victory just yet. The next test of the FCC's regime will come soon enough, as the Supreme Court has agreed to review the commission's $550,000 fine against CBS for a nine-sixteenths-of-a-second exposure of Janet Jackson's breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Perhaps the FCC's disproportionate response to that incident will be recognized for what it was: a regulatory malfunction.
Over at tvnewsday, Harry Jessell writes that the FCC's odious and discriminatory broadcast indecency policy lives, but it may have just been badly, perhaps mortally, wounded. When the case circles back to the Supreme Court, five, possibly six, justices may be inclined to strike down the policy on First Amendment grounds. And five or six is just what you need on a nine-person panel.
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