First in Thirty Years: A Supreme Court Indecency Ruling


Monday, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hand down a ruling — the first in three decades — on what constitutes indecency in broadcast radio and TV. The last time that a decency standard was ruled was in 1978 as a response to the airing of comedian George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” monologue during an afternoon program. At that time, the Supreme Court upheld the fines.

Since then, we have seen several high profile instants, such as Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl, that have helped to push the issue back towards the mainstream and, hence, towards the court system. Much like a high-dollar poker game, the ante seems to keep increasing. David Savage at The Los Angeles Times reports:

The stakes for broadcasters increased when Congress voted in 2006 to raise the maximum fines for indecency tenfold. Network executives say they could face millions of dollars in fines for letting a single expletive go on the air during a national broadcast.

In March 2004, shortly after the Janet Jackson incident, the FCC adopted its zero-tolerance policy for “fleeting expletives.” The commissioners rejected the defense that Bono had used the F-word as an adjective, not a curse.

The U.S. appeals court in New York, in its ruling last year, agreed with the broadcasters that the FCC had not justified its abrupt change in policy. Its judges also said the policy was unclear because the F-word was permitted in some news shows and in the TV broadcast of “Saving Private Ryan.” The commissioners said the profanity on the D-day beaches was integral to depicting the horror of war.

Decency standards is an issue which is guaranteed to bring about round after round of vitriolic argument. No matter which side of the argument you stand on, it tends be a galvanizing discussion to say the least. What will make this really interesting is that this will be the first ruling on this sort of issue since the advent of the Internet. What influence will the broader standards of unregulated cyberspace have on the jury perception of the subject matter? Satellite radio is another new technology to grace the scene since the last time the court addressed the topic. All of these new media compete with traditional radio and TV, but since they are not transmitting over public airwaves, they are immune to FCC rulings.

It will be very interesting as we watch this argument rebooted for the 21st century. Let us hope that the final results are positive ones!

Arguments in FCC vs. Fox TV will be heard this fall.

Photo courtesy of dbking, used according to its Creative Commons license


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