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Censorship: Outlandish struggle

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- During Kanawha County's infamous 1974 fundamentalist uprising over "godless textbooks," a censorship group called Citizens for Decency Through Law sent an agent to Charleston to help mobilize evangelical protests against the "evil" schoolbooks.

The national decency organization was headed by savings-and-loan tycoon Charles Keating, who later went to prison for financial fraud. We always figured that his swindling was more indecent than Kanawha's textbooks.

Now the never-ending decency battle is back before the U.S. Supreme Court, once again. Television networks are resisting fines imposed on them by the Federal Communications Commission for morality offenses.

ABC was fined because an episode of "NYPD Blue" showed a glimpse of a woman's bare backside. Fox was fined because hosts at an awards show uttered forbidden words. Both networks say the prudish FCC censorship represents outdated, Puritanical, American values that died a half-century ago in the sexual revolution.

In the Supreme Court chamber, ABC's lawyer pointed to nude classic images overhead and said they display "bare buttocks," the same no-no for which the network was fined. Lawyers noted that the FCC didn't fine networks for showing nudity in "Schindler's List" or airing profanity in "Saving Private Ryan." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quipped: "It's like nobody can use dirty words or nudity except for Steven Spielberg."

Apparently, it's impossible to draw a line between what's allowable and what should be censored and punished. The censorship dilemma never ends. Nobody would approve of people parading naked in front of kindergarten tots. But should the tots see classic nude statues and paintings? Or bare bodies in R-rated movies? The issue is murky.

In London, Fleet Street tabloid newspapers regularly picture naked "page three girls" -- but our Gazette doesn't do it, because America's culture is different. U.S. newspapers reflect public taste.

Since ancient Greece, struggles over censorship have flared in many forms, with book-burning and jailing of printers. We remember when Charleston's legendary Mayor "Jumping John" Copenhaver sent police to purge bookstores of the lurid novel "Peyton Place." Since then, recurring U.S. Supreme Court rulings have negated many types of censorship, except against child pornography.

Justice Samuel Alito said the current dispute is pointless, because television networks are dying. "Broadcast TV is on borrowed time," he said. "It is not going to be long before it goes the way of vinyl records and eight-track tapes." Over-the-air broadcasts are being wiped out by cable and satellite TV, which offer hundreds of channels -- mostly free from bluenose censors at the FCC.

Will the high court justices -- sitting beneath images of bare buttocks -- uphold ABC's fine for showing bare buttocks? We can't guess. Stay tuned. Following the daily news can be more entertaining than racy TV shows.


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