Supreme Court to Rule on US Broadcast Indecency

19 March 2008

WASHINGTON DC: The Federal Communications Commission is appealing to the Supreme Court over its 'one strike and you're out' policy on broadcast indecency.

The watchdog is to ask the highest court in the land to back its authority to declare a single "fleeting" expletive as grounds to punish broadcasters for allowing profanity on the airwaves.

The strict new rule was set aside in June last year by the New York Appeal Court, following a lawsuit by Fox Broadcasting.
The company had appealed against an FCC reprimand in 2004 for two incidents in the previous two years when celebrities used variations of four-letter words during live awards shows.

The court judged the FCC's policy on fleeting expletives to be "arbitrary and capricious"; also that the regulator had "failed to articulate a reasoned basis for its change in policy".

Supreme Court judges have not ruled on the indecency standard since 1978, when they upheld fines against a radio station for broadcasting a comedian's "seven dirty words" monologue during a daytime show.

Since when, however, it has been unclear whether the use of a single expletive could be judged indecent.

Federal law forbids broadcasting "any obscene, indecent or profane language", but Congress has left it to the FCC and the courts to define indecency.

The regulator's chairman, Kevin Martin says: "I continue to believe we have an obligation ... to enforce laws restricting indecent language on television and radio when children are in the audience."

He is backed by Timothy Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, who thunders:"Such harsh, unedited profanity is unacceptable for broadcast over publicly owned airwaves when children are likely to be watching."

While Fox declares: "The FCC's expanded enforcement of the indecency law is unconstitutional in today's diverse media marketplace where parents have access to a variety of tools to monitor their children's television viewing."

The Supreme Court will hear the case in the fall.

Data sourced from Washington Post Online; additional information by WARC staff