Free speech, even for king of crass

Progressives, libertarians, and all who take the First Amendment to heart may be holding their noses these days - and covering their ears. For the latest challenge to free speech targets a lowbrow radio personality who traffics in banal sexuality, physical oddities, racial stereotypes, and pathetic ignorance.

He thinks such sideshow subject matter is fascinating. So do millions of his listeners. There is no accounting for taste.

But Howard Stern has made several fortunes by keeping his mind - and mouth - in the electronic gutter. Last spring, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) levied a landmark obscenity fine against Mr. Stern's radio raunch - almost $500,000 against Clear Channel Communications, which has dropped Stern's show in six markets - and almost $30,000 against Stern's distributor, Infinity Broadcasting. These are awful, lamentable developments - despite Stern's lack of charm or wit.

For Stern, a garbageman humorist, must be defended by serious, intelligent Americans who understand that limitations on speech - even when remarks are awful and onerous - endanger free expression for all.

Would that he had talent on the order of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, or James T. Farrell, stunningly gifted authors hounded for making art out of streetcorner speech. Surely, it would be so much easier to rally to his defense. Further, were Stern a performer on the order of the late Lenny Bruce, the brilliant four-letter-word satirist, he would be ardently supported in the toniest of salons.

He is, however, a bathroom jester whose right to scatological observations must be championed by those who recoil at such adolescent pointlessness.

Many of us have no choice. We write or speak for our livings. We publicly imagine for money. Occasionally, we use words you don't hear at most dinner tables. Words like those recently uttered by Vice President Dick Cheney on the floor of the United States Senate.

Journalism, commentary, and drama are not always PG-rated endeavors. Haven't been for some time. Still, the would-be speech police persist.Talk laced with sexuality is their enemy. Especially on the airwaves.

Stern, though, like pornographer Larry Flynt, is not the face of evil. Were it not for his life's rewards - Americans just can't help enriching mediocre minds - he might deserve some measure of pity. For here is a grown man spending workdays immersed in bodily functions and gross anatomy.

Is this the real Stern or a radio persona? Who can know? Who could care? Does he do palpable damage to the nation? Who's kidding whom? Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the contrary, our country is in no immediate danger of being torn apart by wanton sexuality or puerile punchlines. Americans already spend an estimated $10 billion a year on so-called adult entertainment. Still, the republic survives. Besotted with pornography, we nevertheless manage to lead the world in commerce and innovation. The center continues to hold. Go figure.

This despite government bluenoses contending that Stern and his legion of imitators corrupt public airwaves with their coarse stupidity. This at a time when cable television, unregulated by the FCC, attracts tens of millions to "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City."

The real despair with regulating speech, however, is not to be found in Howard Stern's troubles. Without over-the-air radio, he can broadcast via satellite, make videos, or retire to some comfy topless club. He'll find an audience if he wants one.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the nation, new writers or broadcasters with talent and intelligence may find compelling ways to talk about our common experiences, the prices we pay for what we have. They may do so with humor and drama. They may use language, all kinds of language, with skill and precision. Maybe they'll talk about the unspeakable. Maybe they'll be smart, telling, and challenging.

And maybe they'll be chilled and restrained by regulators unwilling to let citizens decide, for themselves, where expression ends and obscenity begins.

Joe Honig, a former CBS and AP journalist, writes for television.

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