NEW YORK: America's new puritans, who have been trying to banish profanity and indecency from US media, have suffered a legal setback. Appeal court judges in New York have thrown out a ruling brought by the Federal Communications Commission watchdog against Fox Television over expletives uttered live on air by celebrities.

The appeal decision has called into question the FCC's moral high ground and may encourage network broadcasters to take more 'risks' in their increasingly bland television programming.

Fox went to the Appeal Court after the FCC's decision in 2004 to reverse years of policy and punish even "fleeting" expletives on broadcast TV and radio.

The incidents on the Fox shows happened in 2002 and 2003 and were taken to task retrospectively by the FCC, although it did not seek to fine the News Corporation-owned broadcaster.

The Appeal Court judges ruled the FCC had not adequately, or constitutionally, explained why it changed its mind on the fleeting use of profanity and ordered it to rework its regulations. It dubbed the commission's policy on 'fleeting expletives' as "arbitrary and capricious".

Commented FCC chairman Kevin Martin: "I'm disappointed in the court's ruling. I think the commission had done the right thing in trying to protect families from that kind of language, and I think it's unfortunate that the court in New York has said that this kind of language is appropriate on TV."

The FCC is now considering taking the case to the Supreme Court, while commissioner Michael Copps thundered: "Any broadcaster who sees this decision as a green light to send more gratuitous sex and violence into our homes would be making a huge mistake."

Fox, on the other hand, is delighted with the ruling. Said spokesman Scott Grogin: "We . . . continue to believe that government regulation of content serves no purpose other than to chill artistic expression in violation of the First Amendment.

"Viewers should be allowed to determine for themselves and their families, through the many parental control technologies available, what is appropriate viewing for their home."

The indecency debate came to a head in 2004 during that year's infamous Super Bowl half-time concert when singer Janet Jackson suffered a 'wardrobe malfunction' which resulted in brief exposure of a breast.

The CBS network was subsequently fined $550,000(€407k; £275k) by the FCC, a penalty it is currently appealing.

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