Opinion

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.

Since it’s hard to imagine using language in commerce that cannot be uttered on air, this would be a new and extraordinary power. Anything three out of five FCC commissioners felt is offensive would forever be struck from commercial speech. You like those Coors Silver Bullet ads? Well, we have three votes that say they should be banned. How about the name “Hooters”? Not sure that would survive the proposed FCC test. Maybe Google is a little too close to “ogle.”

The State Department’s chief diversity officer recently penned a column suggesting that “rule of thumb,” “hold down the fort,” and “going Dutch” might all be construed as offensive. Forget about George Carlin’s seven dirty words, the FCC would need a reference library just to keep up. Talk about tying the poor FCC staff in knots researching what should and should not be said on air.

The good news is that the likelihood of the courts upholding any such FCC actions is vanishingly small. However, Hundt goes on to suggest an end-around: using the power of the FCC “to investigate whether broadcasters’ use of derogatory names to describe sports teams and players comports with the public interest.”

Put in simple terms: I have no regulatory authority over your business; I have no constitutional ability to prevent your name from being used in commerce; so I will harass your business partners, the radio and TV broadcasters, until you bend to my will.

There is no excuse for this kind of behavior. Using the power of agencies like the FCC to cudgel businesses and individuals into doing what you think is right is never in the public’s long-term best interest. Whatever you think of the Redskins’ name, we are all better off letting the court of public opinion, and not the FCC, decide its fate.

Neil Patel is the publisher of The Daily Caller and was previously chief policy advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. Richard Russell is a partner with the Stanton Park Group. He is a former U.S. ambassador, a former Republican staff director of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the FCC, and was President George W. Bush’s technology and telecommunications advisor.