Skip to main content

Supreme Court to Rule on Broadcast Indecency Constitutionality

WASHINGTON: The Supreme Court Justices today to consider the constitutionality of TV broadcast indecency regulations. The high court will take up the issue of whether fining broadcasters when performers curse is a violation of the First Amendment.

The case pits the Federal Communications Commission and Fox Television Stations. Fox took the FCC to court over a 2006 Omnibus Order comprising $4.5 million in broadcast indecency fines. (See “Dirty Words Cost.”) Among others, Fox was cited--though not fined--for two incidents of celebrities using expletives on live awards shows. Cher uttered the F-word during the 2002 telecast of the Billboard Music Awards. Nicole Richie followed suit in 2003.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York last year invalidated the FCC rule with regard to the Fox broadcasts on the grounds that it was too vague and therefore violated the First Amendment. The lower court was left to deal with the First Amendment issue after an initial review by the high court in 2009. The high court will now consider whether the Second Circuit got the constitutional issue correct.

Under federal law, content is considered indecent if it describes or depicts “sexual or excretory organs or activities… [and] the broadcast must be patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” The legal framework for the law rests on Pacifica, a 34-year-old case in which the Supreme Court determined that George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” were inappropriate for broadcasting because the medium was “uniquely pervasive.” The current Justices are expected to take up Pacifica when they hear the First Amendment Fox challenge. The case, Docket No. 10-1293, will be queued up when the high court reconvenes in October.
~ Deborah D. McAdams