Free speech and shock jocks 

What is the best part of screwing an 8-year-old? Hearing the pelvis crack.

—Announcer, KUPD-FM radio, Tempe, Ariz.

Voltaire, the witty 18th century celebrity intellectual, was famous for saying “I may not like what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.” That’s at the core of the freedom of speech guarantee in our Bill of Rights.

However, does that apply to the nauseating words at the top of this column, words actually broadcast at a time when young children might have been listening? That isn’t the worst of the worst, either. Here’s what someone at WEZB-FM in New Orleans, La., thought appropriate:

“What’s the worst part of having sex with your brother? … You got to fix the crib after it breaks, and then you got to clean the blood off the diaper.”

Howard Stern isn’t usually as bad as that, judging from the very few times I have heard him. He talks about how far his balls hang down, and seems to have an unhealthy obsession with lesbians. Mainly, he seems to be a slob.

But Stern has been suspended now by a number of Clear Channel stations, after Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced a crackdown on offensive material in the wake of the Janet Jackson/Boob-Seen-Round-the-World/Superbowl scandal.

Rick Diedrich, a Howard Stern fan, wrote to ask me to defend Howard. “There is a tremendously frightening thing happening to our First Amendment rights,” he wrote. “I feel there is an attempt to silence Stern primarily for his Bush-bashing. It is a slippery slope.”

Is he right? Does the First Amendment mean that no one has the right to censor Howard Stern’s broadcasts, or the other two wonderful examples cited above? The answer is no, and here’s why.

Yellowstone National Park belongs to the entire nation. But nobody would defend me if I drove to the Visitors’ Center, squatted down, and took a dump in the middle of the floor. The airwaves are exactly the same. They are national property, just like the national parks. Broadcasters apply for a license and get one for a limited period of time, after which the license has to be renewed.

The Federal Communications Commission has the power to regulate who gets those licenses, where they can broadcast, how much power their signal can have, and to set and enforce standards for decency and fairness.

Nobody has that power for print media or the Internet — nor should they. But why should the government have that power over the airwaves? Besides the fact that they are public property, there is one other simple and compelling reason: There is a limited amount of space on the spectrum, which means that everyone can’t have a radio or TV station. That doesn’t mean the FCC shouldn’t perhaps grant more licenses than it does, especially for low-power micro-stations like the one the “Radio Free Ferndale” activists are fighting for.

But it does mean two people can’t broadcast on 760 AM in the same area. In fact, it was private owners who originally came to the government when radio started and asked for regulation, since they were drowning each other out.

Theoretically, there can be an infinite number of Web sites, newspapers and magazines. But not broadcast stations. Radio is by far the most pervasive medium — there are two radios for every person in America — and one we often have limited control over. Nobody forced you to read this column, but if you are in a store and the radio is on, what can you do?

Now there is a great deal of hypocrisy, to be sure, in what is going on now with the decency police. The fact that it is an election year, and that Michael Powell, the FCC chair, is the son of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, is not a coincidence. The greatest outrage of all is Lowry Mays — the creature who heads Clear Channel, the world’s biggest radio chain — becoming a pious crusader for public decency. If he is truly decent, he should immediately order his lawyers to settle a long-running case and pay a million dollars to one Sandra Svoboda, who covers education for the Toledo Blade newspaper.

Toledo’s Clear Channel stations invested in shock jocks a few years ago. One of them got in trouble early on for calling a hotel where Jesse Jackson was staying, asking if it had a balcony, and then saying all that was needed was a shooter. Next they went after Svoboda, a superb reporter, who did a brilliant series of stories exposing incompetence at the University of Toledo.

The Clear Channel jocks speculated that she was getting good assignments because she was having sex for money with the publisher of the newspaper. She was devastated by this slur on her professionalism and career, and sued. The rich corporation should have settled on the spot.

Instead, they have dragged the case out for years. (I am the ombudsman for the newspaper, have known Svoboda for a long time, the publisher for much longer, and know there wasn’t a shred of truth in their slanders.)

If Lowry Mays, one of the biggest donors to George W. Bush’s campaigns, wants to be taken seriously, he ought to deal with that. Otherwise, someone should ask the Shrub why he takes money from an unscrupulous pornographer.

Defenders of Howard Stern, and the people who think making us vomit is excellence in broadcasting, can take consolation that the FCC allows indecent material to be aired from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., when the kiddies are hopefully in bed. They also should remember, as Carl Bernstein once observed, that freedom of speech does mean that we are free for trash too. But it doesn’t mean we have any obligation to furnish it with a broadcast outlet.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail

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