What makes the print media’s almost universal practice of avoiding expletives so mysterious is that, in so many other instances, it usually errs on the side of honoring the First Amendment, no matter whom it offends. After learning about the government’s warrantless wiretapping program, the New York Times and other major dailies were fairly adamant that the citizenry’s right to know trumped government-alleged national-security concerns. And, when it comes to the ever-delicate question of whether to identify an alleged rape victim in a news story, 24 percent of American newspaper editors believe in printing the names of accusers on the grounds that not doing so would violate the public’s right to know, according to a 2000 study by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. If education and transparency are so important in these circumstances, how can newspaper editors explain their skittishness in printing expletives?

It is one thing for newspapers to indulge their notions of good taste when it’s not very important for the reader to have the sometimes-gory details. But any newspaper that voluntarily bleeps out vital information — something that the broadcast networks are fighting for the right not to have to do — betrays our First Amendment right to free speech and free press. As Lenny Bruce might have observed, it’s a fucking outrage.

Harvey Silverglate is a civil-liberties and criminal-defense lawyer. Jan Wolfe and James Tierney assisted in the preparation of this piece.

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