This is one of those issues that really interests me. I guess that's because it lies in the middle of two of my favorite things, politics and tv. So I keep thinking about this. And the more I think about it the more I don't like what the FCC does and what the Supreme Court has previously ruled on obscenity cases.
In most free speech cases the court rules on whether the speech in question posed an immediate threat for violence. I forget the legal wording of the test they use. But basically you can't incite riot or yell fire in a crowded theater. And it also depends on your location for how much speech you are entitled to. In these cases, the court is pretty reasonable. But when it comes to obscenity I think they are off the mark.
I'm not going to dig back into the specific cases. So forgive me if this isn't an in depth analysis. But I think if you asked the court for a definition of obscenity they would have a difficult time defining it, or giving us a test as to whether something meets the standard and is thus able to be censored. And I think that is part of the argument the defendants are using to counter the FCC in the case before the court right now. Having said that, the court generally finds that certain forms of profanity and most nudity are obscene in certain situations.
Just like with other free speech cases, the situation is very important. If you are standing on your soapbox on a public corner or public park you are pretty much free to speak your mind. If you are showing a sex scene in which two people are describing their act using the word fuck on HBO you are ok. If you show that scene on CBS between noon and 8 at night you aren't. But tv is a different speech environment than standing on a public street. If you and your kid are walking down the street you have a hard time avoiding the speech from the person on the soapbox. Whereas on tv you can easily avoid the profanity laced sex scene by not going on that channel, or even having it blocked.
Aside from those issues, I want the court to address the very nature of obscenity. Why are certain kinds of profanity and nudity/sex obscene? Why are some kinds of violence obscene and others not? Nudity in and of itself is, needless to say, very natural. The act of seeing another person's nude body will not harm anyone. Granted, I don't really want to see Denis Franz's ass. But it won't harm me and I can change the channel. The same goes for sex. Again, it's a completely nature act that (aside from rape) could harm you just by witnessing it. But for some reason our society deems nudity and sex to be dirty or slightly immoral when publicly displayed. And I think it's that reason the court throws them into the obscenity bin. They are legislating morality, and doing a shitty job.
As much as Americans don't want sex on their tv they probably don't want profanity just as much, if not more. But it's the same case as with nudity and sex. There is no harm to hearing, for instance, George Carlin's seven dirty words. I can turn to my 20 month year old nephew right now and say 'fuck' and no harm will come of him. There. I just did it. Nothing happened. He is fine. So what are the court and the FCC protecting people from when they censor certain words or nudity/sex? Nothing. They are just enforcing popular public views on what is "appropriate" for people to see and heard on tv.
Violence is a different story. I have read of studies that show that kids who see violence could be more prone to it as adults. I think that study was more about physically seeing it right in front of them. But it could be possible that seeing it on tv or film can have the effect. And unlike nudity, sex, and language, violence is inherently traumatic. Thus seeing it can have a traumatic effect. I'd leave it to psychologists to determine what type of violence should be censored for kids. But this is the only type of censorship I think is necessary. Everything else is not obscene and it's desire to be shown on tv will be largely determined by the market.