What is obscene cussing and should the government regulate it?
The U.S. Supreme Court thought they answered that in 1978 with the ruling on George Carlin's infamous "Seven Dirty Words" act. It gave the Federal Communication Commission the ability to regulate broadcast indecency between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. That's when kids are supposedly most likely watching TV.
The nine anointed keepers of social mores as far as what the government can regulate when it comes to speech on the air waves will get another crack at obscene words. This time it is a case that has been in the gestation period for nine years. Cher - who seems like a prude by today's anything goes standards - uttered a swear word during the live broadcast of the 2002 Billboard Music Awards.
It's a case of broadcasters' right to free speech and due process versus the FCC's ability to restrict what they decide are dirty words and images.
What makes this case before the high court quaint is the fact there are no such regulations on cable TV, Internet video, and other entertainment that Uncle Sam's decency police at the FCC can't touch under existing law. Even if the high court upholds the right of the FCC to police such matters on the airwaves, the chances are a typical kid will be exposed to plenty of verbal and visual filth by the click of a mouse or scanning through cable TV channels.
What makes the case almost irrelevant is how what passes as obscene in the American culture - if you call it that - is changing at the speed of Internet surfing as opposed to the deliberate and painfully small pace of the judicial system.
The definition of obscenity is in flux. What is considered acceptable today would have been obscene just a few years ago.
The question, though, needs to be framed with the realities of 2012. Why should broadcast TV be singled out in the government's march to protect "innocent ears" when those same "innocent ears" are more likely to come across George Carlin's seven dirty words by accessing Internet videos or even cable TV between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. And let's not forget some "rap" music aired on public airwaves.
It's a double standard that also fails to take into account the new reality that the Internet in many cases more invasive in a young person's life than broadcast TV.
As things stand now, the networks and TV stations can use all the obscenities their hearts desire after 10 p.m. but refrain from doing so in most cases. The reason is simple. They don't want to offend the majority of viewers and advertisers.
And if the real objective if the government is to prevent the exposure of young minds to raunch and filthy material, whether it is through a movie rating system or broadcast standards, they are certainly doing a poor job.
The bottom line is that whatever the court rules it will be about 20 light years behind the times by the time the decision is committed to paper.
The real issue should be whether government - acting in the role of guardians of common decency - should have the right to regulate speech that is commercially produced and whether it can be allowed to flow freely to those under 18 years of age.
Broadcast TV is far from dead. But it is also far from being the dominate place where those under 18 turn for entertainment.
Of course that ruling can never happen until Congress takes on the real issue of just how far publically accessed entertainment of all forms can go when it comes to spewing the seven dirty words or uttering and displaying filth when it can be viewed by those under 18. And until they do, no one can challenge the government's authority in a bid to come up with uniform rules to play by nor can the court rule absolutely on the real role of government in playing gatekeeper for impressionable non-adult minds.