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A Stern view of free speech

Does the public really lack the ability to decided for themselves?
/ Source: Billboard

Wow, what a shocking week for news. Osama captured? Peace in Iraq? A cure for the common cold?


Howard Stern’s show was suspended on six Clear Channel radio stations, because the shock jock supposedly violated the conglomerate’s decency standards.

In the wake of the controversy, Clear Channel president/COO Mark Mays not only worked overtime apologizing for Stern’s show, but he appeared ready this week to abrogate all programming decisions to the U.S. government.

He said his company would suspend any host whose show causes the Federal Communications Commission to issue a “notice of apparent liability.” That’s bureaucratic lingo for a proposed fine. But this isn’t about money. Stern’s show rakes in big bucks for the stations that air his program.

It’s about corporate responsibility, or the lack thereof, to listeners, to the public and, most importantly, to the First Amendment.

For the past few months, the nation has been engaged in a broadening debate about indecency over the airwaves. The whole thing would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high. Freedom of speech is fundamental to our democracy, especially in a time of war and political upheaval. And that includes speech that may be offensive or indecent.

No one can refute that Stern has an audience. Listeners should be entitled to hear what they want to hear.

Dr. Paul Levinson, chairman of the Department of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University, framed the debate this week on CNNfn.

“The government roared, and the media are beginning to run away like scared little mice,” he said. “And I think Thomas Jefferson would turn over in his grave if he were seeing what Clear Channel was saying today.”

This issue has clearly gotten out of hand, thanks to a curse of coincidences.

It should come as no surprise that Congress — which can’t balance a budget, say no to special interest or get out of its own way on most issues — is moving at light speed on this one. It’s an election year.

Then, there is the breast seen round the world. The Super Bowl was sold as “family fare.” So, offended viewers at least had grounds to complain when Janet Jackson flashed her breast. But that’s a lot different than Stern. Everyone knows what his show is about, and it is never portrayed as anything else.

Stern, on the same show that compelled Clear Channel to act, suddenly vowed to back a Democrat after years of supporting Republican pols like New York Gov. George Pataki, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and President Bush. Clear Channel Radio president/CEO John Hogan is a huge Bush supporter. Was that a factor?

Maybe so, maybe not, but you can see how these things can get very messy, very quickly. So where do you draw the line if you’re a company like Clear Channel, or the U.S. government?

You don’t. You simply leave it up to a discerning public to turn the radio dial to another station if they’re offended.