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High court to revisit broadcast profanity
Question of the Day
Lawyers for the government and the four big networks face off before the Supreme Court Tuesday over regulation of profanity on the public airwaves, marking the first time in 30 years the nation’s high court has considered broadcast indecency rules.
At issue is whether the isolated broadcast of a curse word can be considered indecent and punishable by hefty fines. A lower court rejected the policy last summer as an “arbitrary and capricious” departure from long-standing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) precedent.
The stakes in the debate over “fleeting expletives” are high, both sides say. In one corner, networks warn of a chilling effect that risks the very existence of live broadcast television; meanwhile, the FCC says throwing out its policy would give broadcasters free rein to air curse words at any time of day.
The last time the Supreme Court considered broadcast indecency was in 1978’s FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, a case that stemmed from a New York radio station’s afternoon broadcast of comedian George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue.
In a 5-4 decision, the court justified government censorship at hours when children are likely to be watching, based partially on the “first blow” theory that indecent material on the airwaves enters a person’s home uninvited and without warning.
Specifically, the Supreme Court said indecency is “intimately connected with the exposure of children to 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 day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.”
In the wake of Pacifica, the FCC limited its enforcement to material that mirrored Mr. Carlin’s monologue, involving the repeated use of swear words “for shock value.” In 1987, the agency noted that material could be indecent even if it did not contain profanity so long as it was functionally equivalent to verbal “shock treatment.”
A 2001 policy statement articulated a two-pronged indecency test taken largely from Pacifica: 1) The material must fall within the subject matter scope, describing or depicting sexual or excretory organs or activities; and 2) It must be patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.
Three decades after Pacifica, FCC v. Fox Television Stations Inc. involves several instances in which the FCC concluded that “fleeting” uses of curse words were indecent, [Note] the first of which stems from a [/NOTE] most notably the January 2003 broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards on NBC. Accepting the award for best original song, singer Bono said, “This is really, really [expletive] brilliant.”
In response, the FCC concluded that the particular expletive, though it was not being used to describe or depict sexual or excretory organs or activities, is indecent because it “inherently has a sexual connotation.” Noting that this represented a change in policy, the commission didn’t issue a fine.
The agency used the same reasoning in 2006 when it issued a sweeping order that included numerous findings of indecency, including two separate Fox broadcasts of the Billboard Music Awards to be indecent. In 2002, Cher, speaking about her critics, said, “[expletive] ‘em.” The following year, Nicole Richie asked: “Have you ever tried to get cow [expletive] out of a Prada purse? It’s not so [expletive] simple.” Again, the commission didn’t levy fines.
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling against the FCC last summer hinged on its finding that the agency violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) because it did not give a reasonable explanation for its change in policy. Although the court did not base its decision on First Amendment grounds, it did question whether the policy could withstand constitutional scrutiny.
The government is urging the court to limit its review to the APA. U.S. Solicitor General Gregory Garre, who is arguing in favor of the FCC’s position, declined to comment on the case, citing Justice Department policy not to discuss pending litigation. But the government’s brief refers to the 2nd Circuit Court decision as an “inappropriate second guessing of policy judgments committed to the agency by Congress.”
As for criticisms of the FCC’s finding the same expletive indecent in one case, such as the Golden Globes broadcast, but not indecent in others, such as a broadcast of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” the government defends the agency’s weighing of “contextual factors.”
Family groups that have filed amicus briefs in the case supporting the FCC’s policy on fleeting expletives stressed the importance of protecting children from curse words. The Parents Television Council, an advocacy group that encourages its members to file complaints with the agency over perceived indecency violations, said broadcast TV is still “uniquely pervasive in America and accessible to children.”
About the Author
Kara Rowland, White House reporter for The Washington Times, is a D.C.-area native. She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she studied American government and spent nearly all her waking hours working as managing editor of the Cavalier Daily, UVa.’s student newspaper.
Her interest in political reporting was piqued by an internship at Roll Call the summer before her ...
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