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Can’t We Speak Without Being Vulgar?

Profanity and swearing.

Profanity and swearing are everywhere today.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on “fleeting expletives” hinged on a lack of definition of what is prohibited. But God’s standards have not changed!

What is a “fleeting expletive”? Wikipedia defines the term as “a non-scripted verbal profanity or obscenity expressed and broadcast during a live television broadcast or radio broadcast” and goes on to note that “the term appears primarily in discussions of United States broadcasting law.”

Supreme Court ruling

Deciding on the legality of fleeting expletives on TV occupied the time of the U.S. Supreme Court this session. Last Thursday, June 21, the judges announced their ruling that a policy of the Federal Communications Commission penalizing the airing of fleeting expletives is unconstitutional. The ruling quashed a series of fines imposed by the FCC on the Fox and ABC networks for certain vulgarities transmitted over the air.

The case stemmed from expletives uttered by singer Cher and fashion designer Nicole Richie during the live broadcasts of the Billboard Music Awards on Fox TV in 2002 and 2003. In both cases, the celebrities used words deemed obscene. A later incident on the ABC crime series NYPD Blue involved a scene of partial nudity. The FCC punished and fined both networks for the words and the scenes, which were deemed indecent.

Definitions and due process?

The Supreme Court struck down the fines on the grounds that the FCC had not, at that time, given due process by providing the networks with a definition of words and scenes deemed unacceptable and offensive.

“‘The commission failed to give Fox or ABC fair notice prior to the broadcasts in question that fleeting expletives and momentary nudity could be found actionably indecent,’ Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court opinion. ‘Regulated parties should know what is required of them so they may act accordingly’” (“Expletive Ruling Favors Networks,” Financial Times, June 22, 2012).

The FCC failed to inform the networks of the standard, so the networks were not at fault, at least not then. The court’s ruling was based on the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which requires due process.

Degeneration of our culture

Regardless of the legal niceties, many will ask if this is just another case of interpretation of laws of the land falling in line with the degeneration of the culture. After all, it hasn’t been all that long since the use of now common obscenities was almost unheard of and not accepted in the cultural mainstream. Now we hear “four-letter words” uttered in our media, in public places and in private. It’s become acceptable to many.

Shocking then, frequent now

I have a vivid recollection of the first time the “f-word” was used on television in Britain, where I was born and raised. It was famously uttered by Ken Tynan, a now deceased English theater critic and writer, in late 1965 on BBC TV. I remember the horrified reaction as a vulgarity, then deemed very indecent, was piped not just into our home, but into the homes of millions of Britons. The use of the word brought a storm of protest.

Sadly, we now find not just that word, but many other crass terms used with such frequency that few even stop to protest. On a recent visit to a gym, I overheard a man apologize to a young woman for his use of vulgar language. Her reply? “Oh, no problem. I hear that all the time.”

What has happened to us? Aside from the fact that the use of such vulgarity debases and sullies our view of human dignity, it also shows such people to be boorish, uneducated and foul-mouthed. The stigma is gone—but so is the decency, cleanness of speech and respect for other human beings.

God’s standards

Centuries ago, God inspired in the writings of the apostle Paul the following admonition: “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).

How our culture has departed from that standard!

Left undecided by the Supreme Court decision was exactly what standards of decency should be accepted and imposed in broadcasting. Legally, it’s still an open question. We may yet be treated to “fleeting expletives,” vulgar language and sudden uninvited shows of nudity on network TV, even when our children are present.

Yet in our own speech we can strive for decency. As the apostle Paul also wrote, “Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone” (Colossians 4:6, New Living Translation).

Irrespective of legal decisions and the blowing of cultural winds, our homes—and our mouths—can and should be a refuge from the vulgarity that surrounds us!

Find more about profanity and the Third Commandment in our 10 Commandments section.

About the Author

Ralph Levy

Ralph Levy

Ralph Levy is a native of London, England, and now a naturalized citizen of the United States. He works primarily as a professor of theology at Foundation Institute, Center for Biblical Education, in Texas. Foundation Institute is the educational institution of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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