Free speech out of fashion

In New York, Howard Stern asks a stripper to unveil her newimplants so that he can describe them to his listeners.

In Chicago, Mancow Muller discusses naughty sexual practiceswith a sidekick, Turd.

And in Los Angeles, Tom Leykis urges female listeners to flashmotorists on the freeway, while he muses on his favorite types of”boobage.”

Scandalous attacks on high moral character? Not really.

Punishable offenses that could generate millions of dollars infederal fines? Quite possibly.

The almost-anything-goes world of shock-jock radio has turnedupside down since Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction”during the Super Bowl halftime show, her armor-plated nipple-shieldapparently rattling the foundations of the U.S. radio industry.

Since that fleeting glimpse of Jackson’s mostly obscuredanatomy, the Federal Communications Commission has issued more than$1.5 million in fines to broadcast companies airing Stern, Mullerand Bubba the Love Sponge (aka Tom Clem), among others, forbroadcasts that occurred long before Jackson’s internationallytelevised, split-second striptease.

Moreover, with the U.S. House of Representatives recentlypassing a bill allowing fines of $500,000 for each instance ofradio “indecency,” with the White House voicing support and theSenate considering even more draconian measures, the climate forprovocative speech on U.S. radio airwaves has changed dramaticallyand swiftly.

Yet for all the federal muscle-flexing and media hubbub, thebroadcasts themselves hardly have changed at all. Last week, Sternwaxed poetic about public defecation in Las Vegas, a Mullersidekick riffed briefly on NBA star Kobe Bryant’s rape charge, and,somehow, the world stayed on its axis.

Observers on both sides of the free-speech debate-those whobelieve the marketplace should decide what is broadcast and thosewho want to decree what everyone else gets to hear-agree that therecent controversies hardly have made a difference in what we hearon the radio (unless you happen to live in one of the six midsizemarkets from which Stern was dropped by Clear ChannelCommunications).

Both sides, however, fear what’s coming.

“If the FCC succeeds in silencing Howard Stern, it could beradio’s death knell,” says Bruce DuMont, founder and president ofthe Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago and host of”Beyond the Beltway,” a nationally syndicated political talkshow.

Counters Bill Johnson, president of the Michigan-based AmericanDecency Organization, “The radio industry is circling its wagons,the momentum for change is slowing down.

“Our culture is headed downward.”

The real issue at play here, however, is not whether culture isblossoming or dying on the vine but, rather, whether the federalgovernment should impose steep fines to try to influence inevitableshifts in public taste.

Do people in the United States concur with FCC Chairman MichaelPowell, who said in 2001, “I don’t know that I want the governmentas my nanny”?

Or do they agree with Powell’s abrupt turnabout, after rock starBono uttered an expletive in a non-sexual exclamation during lastyear’s Golden Globes TV show?

“A clear line has been crossed, and the government has no choicebut to act,” Powell said in March, as the FCC decreed the Bonoincident “indecent and profane,” though without issuing a fine.

So why exactly did sophomoric broadcasts by Stern, Bubba andtheir colleagues-clearly intended to jolt listeners the way ateenager mooning passersby from a speeding car might do-suddenlybecome a federal case?

Earlier, “The FCC hadn’t been doing its job, in my opinion,”says David Edward Smith, who has been relentless in filing FCCcomplaints against Muller, prompting Muller to file a harassmentsuit against him in March.

“And now they’re finally starting to do their job.”

Even if it were possible to define, to everyone’s satisfaction,the meaning of indecency, constitutional scholars argue that theFCC has a limited legal basis for controlling speech.

“We have a very expansive constitutional protection of freespeech, and even on the airwaves, the FCC’s power is sharplylimited,” said Cass R. Sunstein, the Karl N. LlewellynDistinguished Service Professor Jurisprudence at the University ofChicago and a noted expert on First Amendment issues.

“Basically, what’s going on here involves speech that isconstitutionally protected. Not all of it, but there’s a lot ofroom to say offensive things on the airwaves.”

But no one, including the commissioners of the FCC, hasconcretely spelled out exactly which words, phrases and verbalimages are indecent, outside of the “seven dirty words” broadcastby comedian George Carlin but subsequently banned from the airwavesby the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978.

With the FCC retroactively deeming some broadcasts indecent,then levying staggering fines against select infractions,broadcasters literally have no idea when they’re crossing a lineinto forbidden territory and when they’re not.

“Basically, the FCC is saying: ‘We’re not going to tell youwhat’s dirty, but if it is dirty, we’re going to bash your skullin,'” says Muller, whose show on WKQX-FM has drawn $42,000 in FCCfines.

“We’re easy targets. Label somebody a ‘shock jock,’ and who’sgoing to stick up for them? Call it porn, and who’s going to stickup for it?

“You’ll notice the FCC is not attacking hip-hop stations wherepractically every song is X-rated.”

The selective enforcement of vaguely defined rules helps explainwhy Stern has vowed to quit his show if the aforementioned Houselegislation becomes law. He has mused aloud about taking his bevyof strippers, porn stars and flatulence performers to the fledglingsatellite radio industry, which, like cable TV, is heard only bysubscribers and operates outside FCC content control.

But do people in the United States really want Stern and his ilkto flee the airwaves, leaving a government-controlled radioindustry that caters exclusively to particular tastes?

“People keep saying, ‘Stop forcing your morality on us,'” saysSmith, the Mancow basher who recently was hired as senior policyanalyst at the Glen Ellyn-based Illinois Family Institute.

“I say, ‘Stop forcing your immorality on us.'”

To those who have been around for a while, it’s all a sadreminder of past culture wars.

“It’s really part of the same phenomenon I experienced” in thelate 1980s and ’90s, says John Frohnmeyer, who was chairman of theNational Endowment for the Arts during the great cultural clashesover NEA grants for controversial work by artists Karen Finley,Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe.

“But for free speech to really work in any society, you have tohave the courage to hear views that are contrary to your own.”

-Chicago Tribune