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US court rejects fines on TV cursing, nudity

US court rejects fines on TV cursing, nudity

The US Supreme Court unanimously threw out fines and sanctions Thursday against broadcasters who violated federal policy regulating curse words and nudity on broadcast television.
But the justices declined to issue a broad ruling on the constitutionality of the Federal Communications Commission indecency policy. Instead, the court concluded only that broadcasters could not have known in advance that obscenities uttered during awards show programs, and a brief display of nudity on an episode of ABC television's NYPD Blue, could give rise to sanctions.
ABC and 45 affiliates were hit with proposed fines totaling nearly $1.24 million.
The justices said the FCC is free to revise its indecency policy, which is intended to keep the airwaves free of objectionable material during hours when children are likely to be watching.
The agency's chairman, Julius Genachowski, said the ruling "appears to be narrowly limited to procedural issues related to actions taken a number of years ago. Consistent with vital First Amendment principles, the FCC will carry out Congress's directive to protect young TV viewers."
It was the second time the court has confronted, but not ruled conclusively on, the FCC's policy on isolated expletives. Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his opinion for the court that "it is unnecessary for the court to address the constitutionality of the current policy."
Paul Smith, a First Amendment expert and partner with the Jenner and Block law firm in Washington, said the court should expect more challenges until it rules definitively. He wrote a brief supporting the broadcasters.
The case arose from a change in the FCC's long-standing policy on curse words. For many years, the agency did not take action against broadcasters for one-time uses of curse words. But following several awards shows with cursing celebrities in 2002 and 2003, the FCC toughened its policy.
But Kennedy said the commission did not adequately explain that under the new policy "a fleeting expletive or a brief shot of nudity could be actionably indecent."
The increased enforcement, including issuing record fines for violations, also was spurred in part by widespread public outrage following singer Janet Jackson's breast-baring performance during the 2004 football Super Bowl halftime show.
That incident, and the FCC's proposed fine of $550,000, are not part of the current case. The government has an appeal pending of a lower court ruling that threw out the fine in that case.
The material at issue in Thursday's decision includes the isolated use of expletives as well as fines against broadcasters who showed a woman's nude buttocks on a 2003 episode of the show "NYPD Blue."
In December 2002, singer Cher used the phrase "F--- `em" during the Billboard Music Awards show on the Fox television network. A month later, U2 lead singer Bono uttered the phrase "f------ brilliant" during NBC's broadcast of the Golden Globes awards show. During the December 2003 Billboard awards show on Fox, reality show star Nicole Richie said, "Have you ever tried to get cow s--- out of a Prada purse? It's not so f------simple."
The broadcasters wanted the court to free them from all regulation of content around the clock. They broadcasters argued that the revolution in technology that has brought the Internet, satellite television and cable makes even the old rules obsolete. The regulations only apply to broadcast channels.


Updated : 2021-10-16 10:01 GMT+08:00