Vice Squad
Friday, May 14, 2004
The One Dipstick Standard

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal included a front page article entitled "One Man's Campaign To Rid Radio of Smut Is Finally Paying Off." The man is question is David Smith, a fellow Chicagoan. His bete noire, it seems, is the Chicago-based disc jockey Erich "Mancow" Muller. According to the WSJ article, "Since 1999, Mr. Smith has sent the FCC more than 70 complaints about Mancow's humor. They have resulted in $42,000 in fines that Mr. Muller's employer insists he [Mancow Muller] pay....Half of them [the complaints] are still pending."

Somehow I have managed to miss Mancow's broadcasts during my five and a half years in Chicago. From the descriptions I have seen and heard, however, I doubt I would be a fan. Nevertheless, I find this to be a perverse method of regulating broadcast radio -- even granting that some regulation is requisite. It is what one of my co-bloggers refers to (actually, I am paraphrasing) as the "one dipstick standard." By lodging sufficient complaints, any one guy, in this case Mr. Smith, can determine the sort of discourse that everyone is allowed to hear on broadcast radio.

For years, in both the US and the UK, the standard for whether a book could be suppressed as obscene was whether the book tended to "deprave and corrupt" those whose minds were vulnerable to such influences. One significant problem with this standard is that it makes the most vulnerable mind the arbiter of the availability of literature to all potential readers, vulnerable or not. As the renowned American judge Learned Hand put it in a 1913 obscenity case, the "deprave and corrupt" test would "reduce our treatment of sex to the standard of a child's library...." But now we have our broadcast media limited to the level recorded by the most sensitive and vocal dipstick.

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