Supreme Court Backs Fox, ABC on 'Fleeting Indecency' But Punts on Larger Issues

Federal Power Over Broadcast Indecency Remains Intact

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The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that two TV networks can't be punished for airing profanity and nudity, but dodged broader questions about the constitutionality of a federal crackdown on broadcast indecency.

The justices said in an 8-to-0 ruling that the Federal Communications Commission didn't give "fair notice" before it took action against ABC-affiliated stations for showing a scene with a naked woman's buttocks on the drama "NYPD Blue" and Fox Television Stations for allowing expletives on two awards shows. During the December 2003 Billboard Awards on Fox, for example, reality-TV star Nicole Richie said "Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It's not so fucking simple."

The justices had shown interest in the broader issues during arguments in January. "This has a symbolic value," Justice Antonin Scalia said then, "just as we require a certain modicum of dress for the people that attend this court."

But their ruling Thursday didn't tackle the government's power over language and nudity on broadcast TV. Justice Anthony Kennedy said the court "didn't need to address the constitutionality of the current indecency policy."

Broadcasters had sought to invalidate the FCC's policy, arguing that the agency needed clearer rules before imposing fines. Broadcast companies also sought to overturn decades-old Supreme Court rulings that subject over-the-air programming to stricter rules than cable or satellite shows.

Broadcast indecency hasn't been a priority for the commission under Chairman Julius Genachowski. With its legal authority in doubt, the FCC hasn't brought new broadcast indecency cases since the Democrats took office in 2009, following two Republican chairmen.

Federal law lets the FCC levy a $325,000 fine on each station that airs indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

-- Bloomberg News --

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