War of Bleep Words

The application of the First Amendment has come down to cuss words on TV. I wonder how that would have played out in Philly.

“What sayeth you, Mr. Franklin? Should the vulgarities that become commonplace here 220 years from now be protected under the First Amendment?”
“You’re kidding me, right?”

The First Amendment protects speech, religious freedom, the right to assemble, to petition, and the press, or what’s left of it. The protection of speech was conceptualized to preserve democracy by allowing dissent among citizens. The idea was simple--being able to disagree with political leaders while remaining attached to one’s head.

It may seem a radical notion in this day and age of simply harassing and humiliating those who disagree with the majority du jour. Yet freedom of speech is the very foundation of the American political system. It comprised the right of citizens to express an opinion, one that might be an improvement on the prevailing wisdom whether the cheeses in charge liked it or not.

Freedom of speech also keeps people from picking up pitchforks and torches and rolling out their own Scottish Maidens. That, and just enough income to keep the heat on and the fridge full. Self-determination is a very enduring human desire. Self-expression is one of its fundamental components, but not necessarily laced with obscenities.

I’m one to talk, and I know it. I’ve got a mouth on me that once made a U.S. Marine blush. That wasn’t a particularly proud moment, just lazy. I’ve read a hefty portion of Webster’s New Lexicon. Cynthia Ozick is my hero. I idolize the articulate the way many Americans worship athletes. But I grew up with rough little boys and have spent my entire working life competing in a man’s world, where, when nerve is scarce, bluster suffices.

I’ve heard and applied enough course language in a lifetime to be somewhat inured to it. That doesn’t mean I don’t find it tedious coming out of my mouth or anyone else’s. And while I truly doubt, as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia asserted this week, that children were irreparably damaged by Cher and Nicole Ritchie’s nationally televised expletives, it’s a shame the two couldn’t keep it clean for all of 45 seconds.

Now, thanks to Cher, Ms. Ritchie and a few other attention-starved celebulators, an army of lawyers is gathering to argue that filthy language is protected under the First Amendment. I wish it weren’t so.

I think of Daniel Inouye, the 84-year-old Democratic senator from Hawaii who lost an arm and won a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a Medal of Honor in WWII. Every few years, some junior lawmakers revive an amendment to ban burning the American flag. Everyone knows they’re grand-standing, particularly since flag fires are so commonplace as to be nearly non-existent. Sen. Inouye generally lets the posturing go on just long enough to let the cub legislators get their glory. Then he goes to the podium with his empty right suit sleeve and quietly says he detests flag burning, but the right of his fellow citizens to do so is part of what he fought for.

I doubt he intentionally walked into a German machine-gun nest so spoiled brats to cuss on television. I sincerely hope all parties involved in the broadcast indecency fight can just accept a procedural prohibition and be done with it. A legal debate about the various uses the “S-word” and the “F-word” is no way for the First Amendment to be defined, and it’s sickening slap in the face to anyone who’s gone into harm’s way.

Leave it alone already.