The Federal Communications Commission has been petitioned by an activist lawyer to effectively regulate the word “redskins” off the air. While this page has argued that the Washington Redskins football team should adopt a new name — the current one is racist — it would not be appropriate for the FCC to get involved. Its mission is to regulate public airwaves, but it should not determine what words broadcasters may use, even if those words are politically incorrect or outright offensive. That’s a fundamental free speech issue.
Last month, George Washington University law professor and activist John Banzhaf III challenged the license renewal for WWXX-FM, an anchor station for the team’s radio network. Banzhaf argues that because the station repeatedly airs the derogatory team name, the FCC should strip WWXX of its broadcast license.
The authority to do so, Banzhaf argues, stems from the 1978 “seven dirty words” case in which the Supreme Court upheld FCC action against a radio network that aired a profanity-laced comedy routine by George Carlin. In recognizing the agency’s power to restrict indecent language, the court cited broadcasting’s “uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans.”
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler put some wind into Banzhaf’s challenge this week when he told reporters that “we will be dealing with that issue on the merits and we’ll be responding accordingly.... There are a lot of names and descriptions that were used over time that are inappropriate today. And I think the name that is attributed to the Washington football club is one of those.”
We hope Wheeler’s comments were off the cuff and not a serious statement of potential policy. “Redskins” might be a racist term, but it’s not an obscenity, so it’s hard to see how the FCC could justify lumping it in with Carlin’s naughty words. And even if the FCC had the authority, do we really want the government banning words it finds offensive?
Instead, the FCC should consider getting out of the language police business altogether. Given the vast range of media sources these days, the FCC wagging a finger at dirty words on broadcast TV and radio seems more like an old “Saturday Night Live” church lady skit than the action of a government regulator.
Some sports announcers have said they will no longer use the team name during broadcasts, and some newspapers have announced that they’ll refer to the team simply as “Washington.” Fine, if that’s what they think is appropriate. We too wish that Snyder would come to his senses and recognize his team’s name for the racial epithet it is. But this not a matter to be handled by government regulation.
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