That’s why newspapers’ reluctance to print offensive words is so bizarre. If readers cannot ascertain the content of the disputed speech, they cannot decide for themselves whether the speech should be punished. Editors might counter that, by printing “fuck,” they would multiply whatever alleged harm the original “fuck” caused — the harm that was the reason for punishment in the first place. Besides, they might add, even oblique references to “four-letter words” are enough to inform readers of the speech at issue, and thus give them the opportunity to decide whether or not such language should be verboten.
The problem is that, by engaging in self-censorship, newspapers land squarely on one side of the debate: their reticence is a symbol to readers that those naughty words are not to be used or repeated in public. What’s worse, this self-censorship subtly insults readers by painting us as shrinking violets. Surely, the average reader of the New York Times or the Globe has the maturity to stomach a news article containing a “fuck” or “shit” — language heard commonly in homes, on the street, in plays and movies, even in schools and, if one listens closely enough, in churches.
It is a bit comical, not to mention demeaning to readers, to see the lengths newspapers will go to in order to avoid or suppress taboo words. Most amusing were the large number of book reviews praising Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy’s 2002 work Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, while simultaneously refraining from publishing “the N word” itself.
There is an analogy to the press’s self-censorship in the self-control exercised by cable television and satellite radio, neither of which falls within the FCC’s censorship powers, since neither uses the “publicly owned” airwaves on which the FCC’s broadcast-indecency powers hinge. Many cable-television and satellite-radio stations and networks engage in voluntary “bleeping,” even though they are free to broadcast as they wish. Some of this might be chalked up to a notion of self-imposed taste — but that’s actually a dubious proposition given the often tawdry or inane content of the programming.
‘Fuck’ and Athol
Maybe this trend toward silly content is inherent to the industry. Comcast SportsNet has run an ad poking fun at the town of Athol, Massachusetts — insert “asshole” joke here — which, according to a Globe report this past week, town officials claim is “even more offensive because the ad requires mispronouncing Athol to make its point.” The Globe, that great arbiter of public decency, declined to print the “asshole” connection, instead reporting that the ad “ridiculed [the town] by linking its name to a similarly sounding vulgarity.”
When the actual words are vital for a full understanding of the story, self-censorship surely must be seen as being against the public interest and a dereliction of the duty of a free press.
Interestingly, the courts have a history of being far less skittish than the press about the use of naughty words. In 1971, when the US Supreme Court reversed Paul Cohen’s “offensive conduct” conviction, for wearing a jacket in the Los Angeles County Courthouse emblazoned with the anti-war slogan “Fuck the Draft,” the justices did not hesitate to repeat in the opinion the message on Cohen’s jacket. After all, to have bleeped the message would have deprived the public, not to mention lawyers and other courts, of vital information as to the extent of free-speech protection.