Supreme Court mulls profanity, nudity on network TV

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F-bombs and bare breasts could be coming to network TV.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday began hearing arguments in a case that could rewrite the rule book for Fox, ABC and other broadcast stations now prohibited from pushing nudity and profanity on the public airwaves.

In an unlikely alliance, the Obama administration has partnered with the Family Research Council, Morality in Media and other socially conservative groups in arguing that network television should remain a “safe harbor” for children and families, where one need not fear “wardrobe malfunctions” during the Super Bowl or dirty words during the Billboard Music Awards.

But the entertainment industry’s heavy hitters, led by Fox, have mounted a First Amendment case and reject the notion that, in the age of unregulated cable channels and countless raunchy websites just a click away, the Federal Communications Commission has to play the role of moral gatekeeper for American families.

A ruling is expected this summer. If the justices declare current FCC regulations unconstitutional, the R-rated effects eventually will be seen from the living room couch.

“I don’t think things would change overnight, but I do think it would change. Slowly, more and more profanity and nudity would start to creep into much of the programming,” said Susan Low Bloch, a law professor at Georgetown University.

Networks’ decision-making, Ms. Bloch said, “will be a dollar calculation, not a moral calculation,” and television executives could bet that more sex, violence and four-letter words will equal bigger profits.

Obama administration attorneys and others argue that the media world of the 21st century is polluted with enough filth, and giving broadcasters carte blanche to do as they please will mean the death knell for family-friendly programming.

“This is about letting children be children,” said Ken Klukowski, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council. “The First Amendment is not a license for an adult to say or do anything they want, anytime they want, in the presence of children. If you have 800 channels out there that you can put your content on, what’s the big deal about having four or five” stations free of objectionable material?

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seems to agree. At Tuesday’s hearing, Chief Justice Roberts, the only member of the court with young children, said there are hundreds of cable channels not bound by any FCC restrictions, and that should be enough for people who want racier fare.

“All we are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where … they are not going to hear the S-word, the F-word, they are not going to see nudity,” the chief justice said.

The broad question of how far networks’ free-speech rights extend may not be resolved with this case, and the court could choose to limit its ruling to the FCC’s current indecency enforcement policy, which was declared unconstitutional by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals two years ago.

Fox violated that policy several times in the past decade, including a 2002 incident in which the entertainer Cher uttered the F-word during the 2002 Billboard Music Awards. Reality star Nicole Richie followed suit in 2003, using the same expletive during a live appearance on the program.

Other networks also have been targeted. ABC stations were hit with fines after an episode of “NYPD Blue” featured a lengthy shot of a woman’s naked buttocks. The nudity was shown before 10 p.m. Eastern, the traditional cut-off point for indecent material.

ABC spokeswoman Julie Hoover said Tuesday that the network maintains the nudity on “NYPD Blue” was “not indecent,” and the fines were “unwarranted and unconstitutional.”

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