The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 21 that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over-enforced its own laws when it fined the Fox and ABC networks for incidental obscenities uttered during televised awards shows and a brief display of nudity during an episode of a police drama series. But the High Court refused to issue a larger ruling on the constitutionality of the FCC’s broadcast decency measures, meaning that the enforcement agency will be free — for the foreseeable future, at least — to keep broadcasters on a short leash relative to potentially immoral and obscene broadcast content.
The Associated Press reported that while the justices “unanimously threw out fines and other penalties against Fox and ABC television stations that violated the Federal Communications Commission policy regulating curse words and nudity on television airwaves,” they stopped short of a broader constitutional ruling that broadcasters hoped would free them from the FCC’s strictures on indecency over the airwaves. The Court “concluded only that broadcasters could not have known in advance that obscenities uttered during awards show programs on Fox stations and a brief display of nudity on an episode of ABC’s ‘NYPD Blue’ could give rise to penalties,” reported the AP. The FCC had imposed fines totaling nearly $1.24 million against the networks and scores of affiliates.
Networks in the case argued that the FCC decency rules, which apply mainly to over-the-air broadcast channels, have become obsolete with the explosion of Internet, satellite, and mobile technology. The last time the High Court weighed in on the issue of broadcast indecency was in 1978, when it ruled in FCC v. Pacifica that comedian George Carlin’s televised “Filthy Words” monologue crossed the line of decency because it contained “language that describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities and organs, at times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.”
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Photos: The Supreme Court building; the cast of NYPD Blue at the beginning of season 11