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Howl For Free Speech

Marvin Johnson,
Washington Legislative Office
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October 3, 2007

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” begins the epic poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Fifty years ago today, a San Francisco Municipal Court judge ruled that the Beat-era poem was not obscene. Today, in an ironic twist, a New York public broadcasting station (WBAI) has decided not to air the poem because of fears the Federal Communications Commission will find the poem indecent and cripple the station with fines. The chill against free speech is alive and well.

WBAI’s fear of crippling fines is not unfounded. Howl contains multiple profanities, and each profanity could earn a fine of $325,000. Multiply that by each Pacifica station that airs the poem and it could mean a fine of millions of dollars. With a budget of $18 million for its five stations, a multimillion dollar fine would be crippling.

Ironies abound in this case: (1) WBAI’s decision not to air the poem occurs on the anniversary of the court’s finding Howl not obscene; (2) WBAI, a listener-supported station, will include a reading of the poem on a special online-only program called “Howl Against Censorship.” You can hear the reading at So while you can’t hear Howl on the radio, you can hear it on the Internet; and (3) WBAI is no stranger to the FCC. This is the same station that challenged the FCC more than 30 years ago over the right to air George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine on the air. That case, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, forms the basis for today’s indecency regime.

The censorship of Howl is only the latest in a series of events demonstrating the absurdity of the FCC’s indecency regime. Ken Burns’ latest documentary “The War” was censored by various PBS stations over concerns about four profanities contained in the 14 hour movie. At last month’s Emmy Awards broadcast, Fox censored three instances in which performers said words Fox feared would result in fines. Ray Romano was censored for using the word “screwed.” Katherine Heigl mouthed, but did not say “shit.” And Sally Field was censored for using the word “goddamn” to describe her opposition to the Iraq war.

Contrast the fear over “fleeting expletives” with “Saving Private Ryan” in which profanities abound. In 2004, some stations refused to air the movie. For those who did air it, a complaint was filed with the FCC. Could it be that because the FCC liked this movie, it found that the multiple expletives were not indecent? It’s no wonder broadcast executives are running scared.

The FCC’s policy on “fleeting expletives” is being challenged in the courts. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the policy, and the administration is seeking review by the United States Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in a similar case on September 11 of this year. A decision in that case is still pending.

Congress meanwhile is intent on keeping the FCC in the role of the nation’s nanny. Two bills authorize the FCC to continue to fine fleeting expletives. S. 1780 easily passed the Senate Commerce Committee and is awaiting action on the Senate floor. A companion bill, H.R. 3559 has been filed in the house and is awaiting action in committee. Both bills would essentially overturn the Second Circuit decision, allowing the FCC to continue fining stations for fleeting expletives.

For too long, the Parents Television Council has attempted to stifle free speech by forcing “decency” down the throats of the American people. While we’re not against decency, we ARE against having the government make the determination of what is decent. As the Supreme Court said in 1971, “[W]e cannot indulge in the facile assumption that one can forbid particular words without also running a substantial risk of suppressing ideas in the process.” It’s time that those who love free speech raise a Howl in its support.

If you want to “Howl for free speech,” here’s what you can do:

Learn more:
ACLU Fleeting Expletives Page
• Listen to Howl at
• Contact your Senators and Congressmen. Let them know the government has no role in determining what is decent. Parents already have the tools to protect their children, and the decision as to what children see or hear should be made by the parents. For more talking points, go to

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