Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Supreme Court upholds FCC dirty words ruling

The Supreme Court today upheld a U.S. government crackdown on profanity on television, a policy that subjects broadcasters to fines for airing a single expletive blurted out on a live show.

But the court refused to pass judgment on whether the Federal Communications Commission's "fleeting expletives" policy is in line with First Amendment guarantees of free speech. The justices say a federal appeals court should weigh the constitutionality of the policy.

In its first ruling on broadcast indecency standards in more than 30 years, the high court handed a victory to the FCC. The agency's policy prohibits the one-time use of profanity on live television when children are likely to be watching.

The case stemmed from an FCC ruling in 2006 that found that the Fox television network violated decency rules when singer Cher blurted out an expletive during the 2002 Billboard Music Awards broadcast and actress Nicole Richie used two expletives during the 2003 awards.

No fines were imposed, but Fox challenged the decision and a U.S. appeals court in New York struck down the new policy as as "arbitrary and capricious" and sent the case back to the FCC for a more reasoned explanation of its policy.

The FCC, under the administration of former President George W. Bush, had pursued a crackdown of indecent content on broadcast TV and radio after pop star Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 broadcast of the Super Bowl halftime show.

Before 2004, the FCC did not ordinarily enforce prohibitions against indecency unless there were repeated occurrences.

By a 5-4 vote and splitting along conservative-liberal lines, the justices overturned the ruling by the appeals court and said the FCC's new policy and its findings in the two cases were neither arbitrary nor capricious.

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Stephen Bess said...

Thanks for this. This article really speaks to our true nature as human beings. Just think of how out-of-control we would be without a set of rules or guidelines. As Toni Morrison said in her book, The Bluest Eye (paraphrase: We are not strong -- only aggressive, not free -- only licensed, not compassionate -- only polite, not good -- only well behaved).

Deb S. said...

Stephen: The Toni Morrison reference offers a fresh perspective. Thank you.

Ian Lidster said...

I never thought I would think that but I am glad to hear it. I am the farthest thing from being puritanical, but I commented to Wendy the other day when we were watching something, words to the effect that we're living in a really vulgar era and I find it offensive. As late as when I was in university we, as males, rarely if ever uttered the 'f-word' within the earshot of a female, and virtually never heard a female offer the expletive. Now you hear it all the time on the streets, along with worse. I think broadcasting should get back to the idea of elevating people just a little bit.

Deb S. said...

Ian: I like your term "elevating people". Let's all hope we see more of that.