Monday, October 11, 2010

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but your First Amendment rights can really hurt me?

The well-being and protection of children is a top priority in our country.

Or is it?

A couple of weeks ago, an 18-year-old male student from Rutgers University committed suicide after being bullied by his roommate for being gay. The roommate broadcasted live images of him having a sexual encounter with another man on the internet, according to campus and law enforcement sources. There have been countless other suicides related to anti-gay bullying this past year.

Less than a week after the highly publicized Rutgers suicide, I saw a preview for a movie called "The Dilemma." The preview began with Vince Vaughn words: "[E]lectric cars are so gay." These are the first words used to promote this upcoming movie, these are words meant to cause laughter, and these are words setting the tone for the rest of the preview. The country is aware of the excessive amount of teen suicides attributed to anti-gay bullying, many times using WORDS, and this movie uses anti-gay speech in its preview to get audiences to come watch it. It is absolutely disgusting that our society would allow this; hateful anti-gay expression is hurting, if not literally killing, our young people.

I have also noticed music on public radio calling women "whores," and "bitch[es]," and television shows making fun of people for acting "retarded." These are harmful words that send a message to society that women, gays, and people with mental deficiencies are weak and inferior, and that putting them down is acceptable.

The Second Circuit recently confronted the issue of whether using offensive language, even a single, isolated word, on broadcast television or radio is sanctionable by the FCC in Fox Networks, Inc. v. FCC. The court struck down the FCC's "fleeting expletive" policy, finding the FCC's standard for regulating to be too vague, and thus unconstitutional. It also implied that the crusade against these words is futile since people will presumably always try to find a way to express offensive language.

I almost feel like the Second Circuit is another bully. The FCC's policy is based on protecting young people, whose vocabularies can be expanded in a single instant. The policy is as clear as it can be, as there must be some ambiguity to account for contemporary standards for what is offensive. The FCC lists a few expletives that are sanctionable when aired, but reserves the right to review the context of words to decide whether they are indecent, profane, or obscene, and thus restrictable.

I am not arguing that eliminating offensive expression on public television or radio will cure the problems associated with bullying, but I think it would help. When our young people are crying out for help by taking their own lives AS A DIRECT RESULT of being bullied and put down for who they are, legal steps must be taken to make a change. Banning offensive language on public television and radio, to which our young people are exposed to on a daily basis, could be extremely effective. The less they hear offensive language, the less they will repeat it or be affected by it.

The FCC and many parent group intervenors are appealing this decision, and it is widely expected to go to the Supreme Court in a year or two on the issue of whether the FCC's policy is unconstitutional. I hope that the Supreme Court protects our young people from further injury by upholding this policy to ban offensive words on public radio and television.


Rebecca said...

I thought Anderson Cooper put a great spin on this issue. A partial transcript of his show is on the link below:

Bijorn Turock said...

The Rutgers incident was quite a tragedy. Before transferring here, I spent my first year of law school at Rutgers and I can tell you the culture there is quite different. Growing up in Southern California, I feel I was afforded a more tolerant, or I guess, politically correct upbringing. However, I can’t say that too many of my peers on the east coast shared the same experience.

On one occasion, I remember walking into a bar and hearing one of my roommates say, “hey look over there, that guy is drinking his beer like a queer.” I really didn’t know how to respond to that statement. I was truly caught of guard, because I hadn’t been put in that type of situation before. I felt that on the east coast, or at least in NJ, it was considered completely legitimate to use insulting language when referring to gays. Perhaps the reason for this unspoken approval of homophobia is that no one really takes a stand against it. One way to put an end to this conduct, is to take a stand collectively against any such behavior, so that our voices can be heard, and hopefully, have an impact.

Alcestis said...

There really must be contemporary standards for what is offensive, especially for children. What happened in Rutgers should never, EVER happen. Unfortunately, it's every where in our country. Our tolerance level for this kind of disrespect and our ability to turn away from "name calling" has reached an intolerable extreme. If we don't take steps as minimal as sanctioning indecent, profane, or obscene language things will never change and bigotry will continue from childhood to adulthood. More importantly, children who are different will continue to live in shame and fear.

Please watch this moving and courageous speech:

gtg263r said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gtg263r said...

While I sympathize with the author's moral outrage, I think I would tend to lean in the opposite direction in terms of how to solve this problem.

As a threshold matter, when you say "public" radio and television, do you mean radio and television facilities that are owned by the state? Or do you mean facilities that are available on a widely accessible basis?

If the former, I would agree with the author's post as I don't think local, state, or federal governments should be sanctioning profanity or offensive ideas. If the latter, I would disagree on the basis of protecting broad freedom of speech ideals.

I think that profanity and offensive ideas can actually serve a constructive role in society - especially in the arts - when used in the appropriate context. After all, what is “profane” or “offensive” largely depends on who is interpreting it and in what context. Having a dialogue about the meaning of a particular piece of speech and why it is offensive may ultimately bridge gaps of different perspectives. This is not possible by outright prohibiting the speech at issue.

Instead of having a censor or a board of censors attempting to act as the gatekeepers of "legitimate" culture, I think that children need to be more well-educated on how they synthesize media portrayals and on how to distinguish meaningful social commentary from hateful speech.

Dusty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dusty said...

While I generally avoid any kind of advocacy of government based control of expression, I wonder how banning the word "gay" is any different than the current ban on the "N" word. 95% of high school students report hearing "gay" used as a slur everyday, according to what I heard recently at a Lambda Law meeting. Saying something "is gay" is the equivalent of saying "thats so black" or "thats so asian". By ramping up the word "gay" by banning it, it will be seen as more equivalent to racist slurs and will hopefully discourage the social appropriateness of such language.

2elle said...

I agree that this is such a huge issue. Using offensive words like this really desensitizes people to how hurtful this language really is and what it actually means. Lots of people use words like this and have forgotten the meaning.

When I've heard these words used in the university setting, it's always by people who don't really think about what they are saying. It's become so mainstream that people just don't think that it is hurtful and perpetuates stereotypes and bigotry. There definitely needs to be more awareness about this so people actually think before they speak.