Mr. Chernin was honored last night at the Media Institute's annual Friends & Benefactors event with the group's Freedom of Speech Award. In prepared remarks, he said the wrong decision in a case slated to be heard by the high court Nov. 4 could have devastating repercussions. The FCC had ruled that Fox stations' airing of Nicole Richie's and Cher's profane comments on live Billboard Music Awards broadcasts in 2002 and 2003 amounted to indecency violations. Mr. Chernin called the case "an absolute threat to the First Amendment."
"If we are found in violation, just think about the radical ramifications for live programming, from news to politics to sports ... in fact, to every live broadcast TV event," he said. "The effect would be appalling."
The court case stems from the FCC's attempt to ramp up indecency enforcement by regarding fleeting expletives as indecent. In the past, the commission generally has overlooked expletives uttered on live, unscripted shows. In the Supreme Court case, the FCC is appealing an appellate-court ruling overturning its policy change. The commission didn't fine Fox stations.
Mr. Chernin acknowledged that he is defending some less than ideal material in this case and others, including episodes of "Married By America" that showed strippers.
"I'll admit some of the content we are defending is not particularly tasteful: the expletives, the brief nudity, the carefully placed whipped cream and, of course, the pixels. I would not have allowed my own children, when they were younger, to watch some of these shows," he said.
Still, he said, his company has no choice but to fight for them, because the government is trying to act as a censor. "I vow to fight to the end for our ability to put occasionally controversial, offensive and even tasteless content on the air. ... As a media company, we have not just a right but a responsibility to stand up to the government when it crosses that First Amendment line in the sand -- even if the content we are defending is in bad taste. And in the indecency context, that line has not only been crossed, it has been obliterated."
Mr. Chernin warned that if the government "gets its foot in the censorship door with respect to unpopular entertainment content, it is the beginning of the steep slide toward censoring unpopular political content. And we have seen the beginnings of this downward slide in a recent case where the FCC initially found indecent content in a news program. If we allow our government to intrude into the creative process to censor the 'bad words' at issue in the Fox case, I am afraid we will soon reach the bottom of the slide -- to America's detriment."
Mr. Chernin also cited groups claiming to be interested in "protecting children" for "helping the government along in its attempts to censor TV. ... The job of protecting children is far too important to leave to government bureaucrats or so-called public-interest groups. The job of protecting children lies with parents."
He said the FCC "has succumbed to the view of a particularly vocal minority."