August 2, 2010

Angry confrontation on floor of U.S. House of Representatives illustrates an important First Amendment lesson


NEW YORK (8/2/10) – On July 29 a disagreement about a health bill that would have provided aid for people sickened by World Trade Center dust erupted in a heated confrontation between NY Reps. Anthony Weiner and Peter King on the floor of the House of Representatives. The debate between the two continued the next day during a live newscast aired on the CBS TV affiliate in New York City.

MIM President Robert Peters had these comments:

The face off on the floor of the House of Representatives was heated enough to generate significant news coverage both in New York City and nationwide and to provide both Representatives with an opportunity to continue their debate in a live newscast the following day on the CBS TV affiliate.

But at no time during the House floor face off or the debate the following day on CBS TV did either the Democratic or Republican Representative utter a “four letter” word.

Presumably, both Representatives restrained themselves on the House floor because, as the Supreme Court observed in the Bethel School District v. Fraser case, “The Manual of Parliamentary Practice, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and adopted by the House of Representatives to govern the proceedings in that body, prohibits the use of ‘impertinent’ speech during debate and likewise provides that ‘[no] person is to use indecent language against the proceedings of the House.’”

Likewise, since 1927, it has been against the law to broadcast “any…indecent…language.”

Today, many in the media and academia are of the opinion that the First Amendment should be reinterpreted by the courts to provide absolute protection for indecent language in broadcasting and all other media and, presumably (to be consistent), everywhere else including workplaces, streets, parks, buses, subways, etc.

But the question arises, “Why?”  Can any honest person say that the rule in Congress and the law governing broadcasting interfered in any way last Thursday and Friday with serious debate and discussion about an important matter of public concern, namely health benefits for 9/11 responders?

As recently retired Supreme Court Justice Stevens observed in FCC v. Pacifica, “A requirement that indecent language be avoided will have its primary effect on the form, rather than the content, of serious communication.”  Former Chief Justice Warren might have added, as he did in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “There is a right of the nation and of the States to maintain a decent society.”

Author: Morality in Media   08/02/2010

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