October 4, 2007
‘Howl’ in an Era That Fears Indecency
By PATRICIA COHEN
Those who happened to click on Pacifica.org yesterday could hear Allen Ginsberg intoning, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” along with the rest of his classic poem “Howl.”
The occasion was the 50th anniversary of a court ruling that found the poem had “redeeming social importance” and was thus not obscene.
Yet Ginsberg, who died in 1997, was heard online and not on the New York radio station WBAI-FM, affiliated with the Pacifica network, because the station, according to an article on Wednesday, feared that by broadcasting “Howl” it could run afoul of the Federal Communications Commission’s interpretation of indecency and incur bankrupting fines.
Janet Coleman, WBAI’s arts director, said that when the idea of airing the poem to test the law was proposed, “I said, ‘Yes, let’s try it.’” The radio station has a history of championing the First Amendment, having broadcast the comedian George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine that resulted in a 1978 Supreme Court ruling on indecency. But after several harsh F.C.C. rulings in 2004 — against CBS for a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime show and against Fox for curse words used during the Billboard Music Awards — “our lawyer felt it was too risky,” Ms. Coleman said. The commission can impose “draconian fines,” she said, that could put WBAI out of business.
In 2005 Congress raised limits on fines for obscenity, enabling the F.C.C. to charge up to $325,000 for every violation of its standards. The commission marks the hours between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. as a time when the airwaves should be free of offensive language.
“It seems like déjà vu all over again,” said Al Bendich, one of the lawyers who argued the case in 1957.
WBAI, which is part of the Pacifica network, decided to run “Howl Against Censorship” yesterday on the Pacifica Web site because the Internet, satellite programming and cable TV are not regulated by the F.C.C. The show included a 24-minute recording from 1959 of Ginsberg reading his poem; an interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the original publisher of “Howl” and the defendant in the 1957 case; and a panel on the First Amendment. WBAI's decision was reported yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Since 2004 there’s really been a sea change,” said Ronald Collins, a First Amendment lawyer and an author, referring to changes since the Janet Jackson incident. “Howl” has been repeatedly broadcast, but now “it’s a completely different era,” he said. “The F.C.C. made it clear it has a zero-tolerance policy for offensive language and images.”
Mr. Collins was among a group of people, including Mr. Ferlinghetti and Mr. Bendich, who approached WBAI about airing the poem. They could have tried to get a preliminary judgment from the F.C.C., but Mr. Collins said that the commission doesn’t respond to such requests.
When asked about the broadcasting of the poem, Mary Diamond, a spokeswoman for the commission, referred to the agency’s fact sheet: “The F.C.C. is barred by law from trying to prevent the broadcast of any point of view.” It goes on to say, “However, the Commission does have enforcement responsibilities in certain limited instances.”
In June the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled against the F.C.C. in the Fox case, but the commission has indicated that it will appeal to the Supreme Court. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has not ruled in the CBS case. Mr. Collins said that the First Amendment issues raised by these cases would ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.
Mr. Ferlinghetti, 88, who owns the landmark City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, said that when “Howl” was labeled obscene, first by United States Customs agents and then by the San Francisco police, it “wasn’t really the four-letter words.” He added, “It was that it was a direct attack on American society and the American way of life.”
Mr. Ferlinghetti quoted the unpublished 1957 opinion by San Francisco Municipal Judge Clayton W. Horn, whom he noted was “a God-fearing Sunday school teacher”: “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism?” Judge Horn wrote. “An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words.”
09 ottobre 2007
Qualcosa per cui ululare
Un ululato contro la censura. Devo al Messaggero di oggi, la storia di una stazione radio americana molto libertaria, WBAI, che l'altro giorno ha deciso di non mandare in onda Howl, il celebre urlo poetico di Allen Ginsberg in occasione del cinquantesimo anniversario della sentenza che nel 1957 liberava l'autore dalle accuse di oscenità. E' stata una decisione dettata dalla prudenza: nella fascia serale protetta, la FCC vieta di trasmettere linguaggio osceno (è vero, nel poema c'è del linguaggio forte, solo leggermente peggiore di quello usato dal nostro Dante). E quel che è peggio è che per chi viene colto in flagrante ci sono multe molto salate. Così WBAI ha preferito non rischiare lasciando che Howl, l'ululato di Ginsberg, potesse essere liberamente ascoltato online e via cavo - due ambiti che la FCC non controlla - attraverso il network Pacifica.org al quale la stazione è affiliata. Trovate l'audio dell'intero show su questo indirizzo. E quella che segue è la storia del modernissimo esempio di censura raccontata dal New York Times del 4 ottobre. Come dice Pacifica: "a 50 anni di distanza, grazie alle multe draconiane che la FCC impone a chi viole le sue regole sulle parolacce, continuate a non poter ascoltare Ululato alla radio. Ecco qualcosa su cui dovremmo ulululare".