Supreme Court Rejects FCC Profanity, Nudity Fines
The Federal Communication Commission's indecency policy remains, but it just underwent serious oral surgery and had its teeth yanked.
In a rare instance of the U.S. Supreme Court agreeing unanimously on anything, all justices Thursday (save Sonia Sotomayor, who recused herself because she was involved in an earlier ruling as a New York appeals judge) backed throwing out numerous FCC broadcast nudity and profanity fines and other penalties, the Associated Press reported.
Though the Court didn't issue a broad ruling one way or another regarding blanket indecency regulations' collective constitutionality, the court did rule that brief nude displays on ABC's bygone "NYPD Blue," profanities uttered spontaneously during awards-shows and other incidents among those that earned ABC and 45 affiliates nearly $1.24 million in fines didn't merit the punishments handed down. In ruling, the justices also encouraged the FCC's in-house revision of its indecency regulations.
Justice Anthony Kennedy in his opinion deemed it "unnecessary" for the Court to pursue the constitutionality of the overall indecency policy.
Chairman Julius Genachowski was unfazed, opining that 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' directive to protect young TV viewers."
Circa 2002-2003, the FCC tightened its guidelines and ratcheted up penalties following several unexpected obscenities uttered during prime time awards shows - among them, Cher declaring "f**k 'em" during the Billboard Music Awards on Fox and Bono deeming a particular performance "f**king brilliant" during NBC's Golden Globes broadcast. In doing so, the agency threw out a previous exemption that would let a first brief, unexpected obscene moment slide. Kennedy noted that the FCC didn't make it clear enough when addressing networks that "a fleeting expletive or a brief shot of nudity could be actionably indecent." Things escalated in 2004, after Janet Jackson's nipple popped itself briefly out to say "Howdy" during CBS's Super Bowl halftime show. That netted a $550,000 fine that wasn't addressed in the Court's decision, as it's still awaiting a lower-court appeal of the decision to throw out the original fine.
Though Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's opinion stated that she would have overturned the decision she believes was wrong even when first handed down, broadcasters didn't achieve a goal of being freed from 1978's landmark Pacifica decision regulating profanity tolerance during prime viewing/listening hours. That case upheld FCC action against a New York radio station that broadcasted George Carlin's 12-minute "Seven Dirty Words" profanity-caked monologue.
And on that note, we cue the music: