BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. A couple of weeks ago KBOO, a non-commercial radio station in Portland, Oregon was fined 7,000 dollars for playing a song. We won't play much of it because we don't want to be fined, although another program on WNYC, our producing station, did play a different version of the song with the same lyrics. WNYC has not been fined, apparently because nobody complained to the FCC, while someone in Oregon did. The FCC gave KBOO 30 days to respond. The song is called Revolution, a feminist tract that says in no uncertain and very explicit terms that men should not try to equate political revolution with promiscuous sex.
WOMAN: YOUR REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE YOU KILLING ME SOFTLY WITH FUJEES [SP?] YOUR REVOLUTION AIN'T GONNA KNOCK ME UP WITHOUT NO RING AND PRODUCE LITTLE FUTURE MC'S BECAUSE THAT REVOLUTION WILL NOT HAPPEN BETWEEN THESE THIGHS.
YOUR REVOLUTION WILL NOT FIND ME IN THE BACK SEAT OF A JEEP WITH L.L....
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The commission has defined indecent speech as language that depicts in terms patently offensive according to community standards for broadcast sexual or excretory activities or organs. That's one standard. Apparently America has a million of them. Marjorie Heins, a First Amendment lawyer, (so you know where she stands) has written a history of the subject that ranges across some 25 centuries called Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship and the Innocence of Youth, and she joins us now. Welcome to On the Media!
MARJORIE HEINS: Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So-- where do you think that the song Your Revolution fits in to community standards? Some of that language is pretty rough.
MARJORIE HEINS: Actually in comparison to other rap music and other forms of entertainment and information that are out there today, I found it remarkably tame, and what's most interesting about this FCC punishment of this radio station is that the song is an explicitly feminist protest against the kind of disrespect of women that has been of concern, certainly among our political leaders, in terms of sexual attitudes, and the FCC chooses to censor this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say it's not nearly as rough as a lot of songs that are out there, but those songs aren't necessarily being broadcast.
MARJORIE HEINS: Well that goes of course to the FCC's special status as our only official federal censorship agency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The FCC is responding to a community complaint!
MARJORIE HEINS:Well one complaint, and it's interesting - if you go back to the history of FCC and decency enforcement the famous case, the Pacifica Radio case where the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the power of the FCC to punish Pacific Radio for playing a comic monologue that used the seven words that you supposedly couldn't say on the airwaves in an explicitly political way. That was based on a complaint out of New York City by somebody who was on the Board of Morality in Media! He did not represent the standards of that community. I very much doubt that this complainant in Portland who was offended by this feminist rap song represented the standards of that community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The idea that certain material is dangerous for kids is as old as Plato is. He subscribed to the idea that kids will imitate what they see or hear.
MARJORIE HEINS: He objected to most of the myths and most of the poetry that we now consider classic, because he thought children should be basically given indoctrination rather than an education that would enable them to think, and Plato's Republic is really a prescription for a totalitarian state, brilliant as much of the Dialogue is. The reason I started the book with Plato was in fact that a court cited Plato in ruling against a teacher who had raised a free expression claim in a school censorship case. that seemed remarkably inappropriate given Plato's philosophy and its inconsistency with the free expression values that we have in this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now there seems to have been a tug of war over the notion that on the one hand kids were unstained beings of purity and innocence and on the other hand that they're vessels of bestial impulses and evil thoughts that have to be controlled, and either option seems to call for censorship!
MARJORIE HEINS: The rhetoric about childhood innocence began to become much more prominent in the 19th Century and I trace the anti-masturbation hysteria and myths that led to some pretty horrendous kinds of restrictions -- the progression or regression from there to censorship laws that focused on sexual material was pretty logical. An English judge said in what is the seminal obscenity case in the 1860s if you want to prevent young and vulnerable readers from having libidinous thoughts, then it would be natural to censor and suppress literature with sexual content.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But nobody talks about that any more as a reason for censorship. The basis now is something called the harmful-to-minors statute. So what does it mean to be harmful to minors?
MARJORIE HEINS: The harmful-to-minors standard which is a legal standard invented by the Supreme Court as well as the related but different indecency standard that the Federal Communications Commission uses are defined in only the vaguest terms, and it may not explicitly talk about libidinous thoughts or masturbation, but it is all premised on the same notion that this sexual knowledge is not appropriate for kids.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is brewing on the legislative front regarding kids and access to media?
MARJORIE HEINS:We have two federal laws that were passed in the last couple of years. One mandates Internet filters in all schools and libraries that receive any form of federal financial assistance which of course will have its impact disproportionately on low income communities. The second law which the Supreme Court just agreed to review is a criminal law that basically bans expression that is quote/unquote "harmful to minors" on the Worldwide Web, and it's a very vague, open-ended standard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you very much!
MARJORIE HEINS: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marjorie Heins is author of Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship and the Innocence of Youth.