When I published The No Asshole Rule in February, I expected some people would love the mild obscenity in the title and others would hate it. But I didn’t expect people to apply such weird, inconsistent censorship rules to the title. For instance, when NPR’s Morning Edition called to book an interview, the producer told me she loved the book. But then she stopped returning my messages and eventually cancelled the interview, saying, “The title makes my bosses nervous.” I’ve done many radio and TV interviews where I was instructed that it was alright to say “a-hole” but not “asshole.” The New York Times insisted on calling the book The No ******* Rule on its bestseller list. Other publications—including Time and PW—printed the title in full. And one satellite radio host asked me to say the word “asshole” over and over because his listeners would enjoy it.

This summer, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision partly explaining these clashing and sometimes paranoid responses to the word “asshole.” The court berated the FCC for its reaction to a live broadcast where U2 singer Bono was so excited about winning a Golden Globe Award, he blurted out, “This is really, really fucking brilliant.” The FCC penalized the network, on the grounds that any variant of the “F-word” inherently has a sexual connotation and is therefore indecent. The court rejected the FCC’s reasoning, noting that the “F-word” is used in many non-sexual ways.

One of the court’s comments resonated with me in the aftermath of my bewildering efforts to talk about The No Asshole Rule in various media outlets: “[W]e are sympathetic to the Networks’ contention that the FCC’s indecency test is undefined, indiscernible, inconsistent, and consequently, unconstitutionally vague.” For example, the Court observed, the FCC allowed a broadcast of Saving Private Ryan, complete with repeated uses of “fuck” and “shit,” because in that context the expletives are “not gratuitous,” since their use was “integral” to the work.

I guess these rulings mean it’s safe for me to say the word “asshole” once or twice during a radio or TV interview without placing my hosts at risk. Beyond that, however, the rulings provide little guidance about how and when it’s acceptable to use the word “asshole.” Is a discussion of the book’s full title on a “bona fide news show” acceptable? Are interviewers and I protected by the Saving Private Ryan exception because the word “asshole” is so integral to the work? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and most of my hosts aren’t willing to risk a $300,000 fine and a pile of legal bills to find out. These and other ambiguities provoke fear among the broadcast journalists who interview me. I once was in the middle of a screaming argument between a radio host and his producer. The host insisted it was okay to say “asshole.” His producer hollered back, “You’re going to get me fired! I’m the one who’s going to have to deal with the lawyers and be blamed for your filthy mouth!”

The producer’s fears illustrate the chilling effect of government censorship that the First Amendment is designed to protect against. I hope a case comes along soon that leads to a constitutional review of the current pattern of government censorship. And I hope that when it does, the courts look at how the media arena has changed in the past 30 years. Today’s editors and producers are acutely aware of their audiences, sponsors and funding sources, and they know what language their community will and will not find acceptable. Both the host and his paranoid producer on that radio show were confident their audience was comfortable with the word “asshole.” The producer feared his government, not his audience.

The standard I’ve learned to apply during media interviews is to respect my host’s choice. The terms we’ve used in lieu of “asshole” include jerk, bully, bleep, bleephole, a-bleep, a-hole, a**hole, schmuck, tormentor, workplace weasel and my favorite, “starts with the letter 'a’ and rhymes with 'castle.’ ” I use whatever my interviewers prefer, so long as listeners and readers understand that the book is about how to build organizations where nasty people can’t get away with doing dirty work—and how to survive in destructive workplaces where these creeps rule the roost.

Author Information
Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (Business Plus) won a 2007 Quill Award.