The Washington Times
Sunday, June 24, 2007

Here’s how I can tell it’s summertime: I wander into various rooms of my house and find a TV blaring, but no one is there.

The cast of Disney’s “That’s So Raven” may be in the middle of a comedic escapade worthy of Lucille Ball and company, but the appeal of the driveway basketball hoop or a scooter in the garage keeps my children outside much of the day, the slamming of the screen door announcing their frequent departures.

The thing is, when they come back inside, they want the TV ready and waiting.

I’m convinced my children are afraid of the sound of a silent house.

Either that or they think our family room should operate much like an airline terminal, where patrons meander to and from the gate, occasionally turning their attention to an endless feed of programming that streams into their consciousness.

I’m not really concerned that my children are watching too much TV. After a long and demanding school year, I don’t mind if they enjoy the freedom to catch an episode of a favorite show at an odd hour of the day — say, at about the time they normally would be heading to social studies or math class.

It’s just that when they leave the room, nobody will turn the dang thing off.

I’m certain if we were a Nielsenfamily, our hourly TV viewing time would be alarming — something like 100 percent of waking hours, but that wouldn’t be accurate. That would only track the hours when the power switch on the TV has been pressed to “on,” not the fraction of those hours when someone actually sits in front of it.

So anyway, “Turn the TV off” has become my mantra for the summer. I figure in addition to the money I’ll save on electricity and the prolonged years of viewing life we might enjoy from our faithful Sony TV set, I also might introduce my crew to some new background noise — the sounds of birds chirping outside our open windows, for example.

A couple of weeks ago, the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York gave me an even better reason to get my children to turn off the TV. Reviewing the outcome of two previous cases, it invalidated a Federal Communications Commission indecency ruling against Fox Television and said the policy of punishing “fleeting expletives” was “arbitrary and capricious.”

In case you don’t know, “fleeting expletives” are those unintended utterances people make — the kinds of things we say when we hit our thumbs with a hammer or drop an open gallon of milk on the kitchen floor. You can do this at home and simply cover your mouth, but on TV, it’s somewhat more consequential.

Previously, the FCC didn’t punish TV or radio stations when people accidentally slipped with a choice word over the public airwaves. Presumably, back in the day when all TV was live TV, it was understood that, human nature being what it is, folks occasionally would get caught up in the moment — or perhaps they wouldn’t realize they were still on the air.

The cases of “fleeting expletives” that caused the FCC to change its policy most certainly were not accidental. They involved outspoken celebrities (Cher and Nicole Richie) serving as presenters on the Fox Channel’s prime-time Billboard Music Awards, using words commonly heard in prison yards and on premium networks such as HBO.

Apparently, the judges on the Court of Appeals don’t see the difference between a momentary loss of decorum and a flagrant dropping of the f-bomb, proving once again that though our federal courts may be packed with brilliant legal minds able to fillet the language of a statute to the bare bone, those judges don’t seem to have the common sense God gave a rock.

I’m not a lawyer, much less a federal judge, so maybe I just don’t have the smarts to understand their way of putting things. It does seem to me that the folks on the bench tend to use the words “arbitrary and capricious” when the rest of us would just say, “that’s a lot of hooey.”

What strikes me as arbitrary and capricious — make that a lot of hooey — is the notion that the FCC could in any way be out of line as it attempts to curb the rampant display of indecency assaulting us through the public airwaves.

Yes, yes, we all have the right to choose what we want to watch. And as I said, I’m making a concerted effort to assure that my children are watching less TV altogether as well as more of what I like and can support.

But I have to say … hello, judges? “Arbitrary” and “capricious”? What are you thinking?

Broadcasters are claiming this decision as a victory for free speech, a concept that assures me the right to say all this in a newspaper without fear of retribution by my government (but with the confidence that my e-mail box will be flooded with people telling me I’m a prude).

I shudder to think what our Founding Fathers would say, however, about the freedom of speech that allows an accomplished and admirable American such as Nicole Richie (sarcasm intended) to fleetingly utter a vulgarity that might have made even Ben Franklin blush.

Our children are certain to see and hear things in our present-day media that rob them of their innocence and offend our sensibilities. Because Miss Richie’s right to utter an expletive on TV apparentlytrumps our right not to hear it, the job we parents face is to teach our children to be offended, too.

And to turn off the TV.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of “The Perfect World Inside My Minivan One Mom’s Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia,” a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.mary or send e-mail to

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