Howard Stern, New York City’s outrageous “shock jock” of station WXRK, was fined last year by the Federal Communications Commission. It was another example of the cultural double standard that is now so pervasive it would seem to have been written into law. Stern ran afoul of the FCC’s ban on “indecency.” One doesn’t have to appreciate Stern’s politics—he’s a Republican, an admirer of Ronald Reagan, and a supporter of Senator Al D’Amato, who is a frequent guest on his program—or his brand of seatalogical humor to perceive a troubling aspect to this case.

Howard Stern originated raunch radio in Washington, D.C., in 1981. The FCC’s attempt to curb “obscenity” over the public airwaves dates back to the 1960’s when, in response to a George Carlin routine on New York’s WBAI, it established its “seven dirty words” policy. As a result of a complaint against Stern in 1986, the agency expanded its definition of indecency to include programming that is “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards.” The FCC and supporters of broadcaster rights have been sparring over this issue in federal courts, with the latest ruling, by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, holding that broadcasters must have at least some period of the day when they are free to carry indecent material.

The new criterion of “community standards” is fraught with ambiguity. Stern’s show is the highest rated program in its time slot, and it also does well in several other major cities. He has a particularly strong following among young men. The millions of people who tune him in regularly can surely claim to constitute a segment of the “community.”

Howard Stern’s four-hour daily morning show features humor that can best be described as vulgar. He manifests a preoccupation with sexual organs and bodily functions, and he seems to make it a point to insult as many minorities as he can. Aided by his black woman sidekick, he reserves some of his nastiest comments for women and blacks. His view that women are primarily sex objects is a staple of his shtick, and he has joked about slavery.

But tastelessness is rampant in the electronic media these days, as interviewers and gabmeisters, in an effort to keep up with the competition, continually push the boundaries of acceptability to the limits. In its own way, television’s endless talk-show parade of transvestites, transsexuals, S&M enthusiasts, and devotees of every bizarre practice that the shows’ producers can dig up is as offensive as what Howard Stern is doing. Yet Oprah, Sally Jessy, Geraldo, and Donahue have rarely, if ever, been heard to utter a statement that hasn’t been cleared with the liberal thought police.

When one considers what passes for radio commentary, it becomes especially difficult to justify the FCC’s action. A black-owned station in New York City, WLIB, features virulent anti-white, anti- Semitic, and anti-Korean rhetoric. On its call-in shows, folks have advocated killing cops. The station has close ties to Mayor Dinkins; local politicians frequently appear on it; and Governor Cuomo has praised it as “a source of strength and guidance for the African-American community.” Needless to say, WLIB has not been punished by the FCC. Other black-oriented radio stations play rap and reggae music containing lyrics that urge violence against various groups.

The case of Howard Stern and the larger question of censorship also highlight the perennial, and probably irreconcilable, fissure in conservative ranks between libertarians and traditionalists. After all, it has been groups like Terry Rakolta’s Americans for Responsible Television and the Reverend Donald Wildmon’s National Federation for Decency (now called the American Family Association) that have long been pressuring the FCC to act against what they see as growing immorality in the mass media.

The issue of censorship is a complex one, and it is naive or dishonest to contend that what passes over the nation’s airwaves has no effect on listeners and viewers. But if we are to have rules governing speech, they should be enforced against all offenders, not just against those deemed politically incorrect. Once again, when it comes to freedom of speech, it is clear that some speakers are freer than others.