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U.S. Supreme Court will take case on the FCC’s indecency rules

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could decide whether the FCC’s rules banning expletives and nudity on broadcast television is a violation of the First Amendment.

The case stems from the President Bush-era FCC’s indecency campaign on fleeting expletives. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York found the commission’s policy against such expletives was “unconstitutionally vague” and overturned it.

The Supreme Court’s ruling will finally determine whether the FCC can police the broadcast airwaves for content violations — a matter that has been in contention for decades.

The case involves two scenes on live award shows on the Fox network in which celebrities uttered profanities. It also involves a scene on the former ABC series “NYPD Blue” that displayed the backside of a naked woman. All the incidents occurred in 2002 and 2003.

Earlier, when the appellate court ruled that the FCC’s programming rules were inconsistent, it cited instances where the commission said Fox stations violated its policy with the language on the awards shows but allowed the use of the same language in a broadcast of the film “Saving Private Ryan.”

The Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to overturn the recent appeals court decision, though that might not happen. In an earlier version of the same case on different issues before the high court, several Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism that a ban on expletives is constitutional.

“We are pleased the Supreme Court will review the lower court rulings that blocked the FCC’s broadcast indecency policy,” said an FCC spokesman. “We are hopeful that the court will affirm the commission’s exercise of its statutory responsibility to protect children and families from indecent broadcast programming.”

Similar expletives are regularly used on pay-television programming. But the FCC can’t control pay-TV content. Broadcasters are subject to the FCC’s rules because they use the public’s airwaves free of charge. The FCC has long blocked the airing of indecent material between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The Supreme Court will hear the case during the term that begins in October. It’s called the Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, 10-1293.