A riddle: When is a curse word not a curse word?
The two most powerful organizations in this country, the Supreme Court and Network Television, have been trying to figure out the answer to this puzzle for some time.
It's acceptable to curse in a documentary, but not in a sitcom. You can show nudity in a medical show, but not in a drama. You can show a person getting shot in the face ... well, that one they agree on; shooting people in the face is always acceptable no matter what time of day.
Today our venerable Supreme Court finally decided on the case of "Swearing and Naked People v. Prime Time TV"; a case which has been getting argued up the legal food chain since Cher dropped a few choice words during an award show all the way back in whatever year it was that Cher was still getting awards, I'm guessing sometime in the 70s.
The FCC, in what I'm sure was just a misguided attempt to fund their Christmas party, started levying higher and higher fines on television networks for swearing, skin, or pretty much anything else that you can see on cable. For some reason the networks didn't like having to pay $500,000 every time Nicole Richie opened her mouth, so they took the FCC to court.
And what did the Justice League decide? Will our airwaves be crushed by puritanical views of acceptable content or will TV descend into a hedonistic cesspool from which there is no escape?
And the winner is: Neither!
Way to go, Supreme Court! Apparently this issue was so ripe they decided to throw it in the garbage.
In a feat of buck passing the likes of which haven't been seen since the whole "Who said there were WMDs in Iraq?" debacle the Supreme Court said that the FCC wasn't clear enough about what constitutes indecent material or how much fines should be for each offense.
Somewhere right now there is a person who spent many years and a lot of money studying math, statistics and probability who is now working on the proper dollar-to-buttock ratio for the FCC.
Friend, I am sorry.
So how did the Roberts Court, the guys who gave us the Citizens United decision, come down on the side of regulation?
Back in 2009 the Court ruled that the FCC has the right to regulate TV because the FCC has a right to, as Justice Antonin "Don't Call Me Tony" Scalia put it, "protect the public from foul-mouthed glitterate from Hollywood."
Since nobody wanted to ask Scalia to stop Garfielding a pan of lasagna long enough to reconsider his opinion they let that decision stand.
So what kind of effect will this have on TV? None. The FCC can still fine TV networks, they just have to explain ahead of time what they would fine them for. And the networks will keep paying the fines because they can always scrape together a spare half a million; well, maybe not NBC, I think that whole network is funded by Brian William's Mastercard.
So plop your kids in front of the TV and leave the room, since that's what the court assumes you're doing anyway, and take comfort in the fact that if they see something they shouldn't then someone will be held responsible; and, more importantly, it won't be you.
Copy Editor Wes Burns is a Friday columnist. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don't necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. Contact Wes Burns at 641-753-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.