22 June 2012

Evasive Inaction

Non Sequitur, 22 Jun 2012

I don't know, either. And noted on anniversary of Fall Barbarossa, comrade!

I'm temporarily ensconced in the Bay Area. Jaws got in late last night after cruising for helpless swimmers out in Half Moon Bay and is still grumbling about the off-burnt taste of neoprene wetsuits.

The main news is this: Mister Neil cannot quite — yet — yell "Fuck! I won a Hugo!" (as he did at ConJose in 2003) with impunity on broadcast TV. But at least for now, there aren't any rules saying he can't, either. Yesterday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the FCC's rules regarding "fleeting expletives" on broadcast TV were not sufficiently clear, nor adopted with sufficient administrative process and process of law, to justify fining broadcasters for allowing those awful words (and boobs) over the airwaves. FCC v. Fox Television Stations, No. 2010–1293 (21 Jun 2012).

By ruling this way, the Court avoided considering the constitutionality of the "indecent speech" doctrine established in the "seven dirty words" case. See FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978). This is a common theme in Supreme Court litigation: If there are grounds for deciding a matter that do not involve interpreting the Constitution — especially if there is already some precedent on that Constitutional question, however decrepit or questionable — the Court will use the "constitutional avoidance canon" to evade rather than confront its duty. I think this is ordinarily a penny-wise-and-pound-foolish approach — it ordinarily only defers a difficult decision, rather than actually avoiding it — but I'm not on the Court. In this particular instance, I agree with Justice Ginsburg's concurring opinion in the Fox matter decided yesterday:

[T]he Court’s decision in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U. S. 726 (1978), was wrong when it issued. Time, technological advances, and the Commission’s untenable rulings in the cases now before the Court show why Pacifica bears reconsideration.

Professor Volokh posits that this time, anyway, the avoidance may have been a strategic decision to avoid a nonprecedential opinion. It's an interesting thought... but it runs right into the delay-but-not-evade issue I described in the preceding paragraph.

In any event, why should authors care? For a very simple reason: Freedom of speech and authorship — indeed, every aspect of the arts — are not merely inextricably interlinked, or "two faces of the same coin." They are the same thing.