Hail to the bleep

The nice thing about being former senior government officials is that we can write what we choose. But in this town, yesterday’s former official is tomorrow’s cabinet secretary, so it bears reading and responding to the ideas, however misguided, of a former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair with close ties to the current president.

In a Washington Post op-ed published on April 4, Reed Hundt stated that if he were still the FCC’s chairman, he would move to block mention of the name “Redskins” on radio and broadcast TV. The gambit is intended to force Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to change the team’s name, which Hundt considers offensive.

The question is not whether the name “Redskins” is offensive. The question is why the former head of the FCC thinks the government, and specifically five appointed regulators, can pass judgment on the appropriateness of the name of a private sports team.

Think about it. What if Abe Pollin hadn’t changed the name of the Washington Bullets? Would the FCC be obligated to step in as part of the Obama administration’s gun-control efforts? It’s hard to argue that Hundt wouldn’t support such a move, since he called the Bullets’ name “no longer appropriate” in his column.

Hundt argues that the people own the airwaves so the government can make sure they are used for good. In the case of the Redskins, Hundt argues, the public good would be served by not broadcasting the team’s offensive name. In his eyes, banning the name “Redskins” from the airwaves is no different than banning swear words.

But Hundt doesn’t want to ban the word “Redskins,” he wants to force the Redskins to change their name. The Redskins are not owned by the public. They have nothing to do with the FCC. Hundt wants to use the public’s airwaves as a tool to force a private company to meet a standard he feels is appropriate.

In this way it is completely different than the indecency rules the FCC is charged by Congress to administer. The rules forbid the use of vulgar language on air. Putting aside all debate over how these rules have been administered or whether they have been effective, the point of the rules is not to keep Howard Stern from swearing. The point is to keep seven-year-olds from hearing swear words when they turn on the radio.

That is exactly how it has worked. After being fined by the FCC, under Hundt and other chairmen, Stern moved off the public airwaves. Now he can swear up a blue streak on satellite radio — and seven-year-olds will not hear any of it unless their parents have subscribed to the service.

It’s tough to imagine how driving the Redskins off the public airwaves would be in the public’s interest. Of course, that is not the goal. The goal is to rename the Redskins and establish the FCC as a broad arbiter of the American lexicon.