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$#!* That: High Court Tosses FCC Indecency Rules but Skirts Free Speech Issue

Posted on Jun 21, 2012
Franz Jantzen/Supreme Court

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court on Thursday tossed out indecency sanctions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission on the Fox and ABC television networks.

In the court’s opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, “the FCC failed to give Fox or ABC fair notice prior to the broadcasts in question that fleeting expletives and momentary nudity could be found actionably indecent.” The commission’s standards are “vague,” he added.

Although the court’s ruling establishes guidelines that the government must follow in regulating broadcast content, it dodges the question of whether the regulations are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

The FCC’s prohibitions on naughty words and private parts have undergone little change since they first took shape in 1978 when the court decided FCC v. Pacifica. The FCC remains “free to modify its current indecency policy,” Kennedy said.

—Posted by Sara Beladi

The Wall Street Journal:

The decision, which focused on process rather than substance, offered little clarity to broadcasters after nearly a decade of legal battles over expletives uttered on live television and brief displays of bare breasts and buttocks. The high court declined to say whether government punishments in such cases violate the First Amendment’s free-speech protections.

The justices’ punt leaves the Federal Communications Commission to grapple with more than a million indecency complaints that have piled up at the agency since the litigation began. The FCC also must decide whether to stick with a tough standard for policing the airwaves set during the George W. Bush administration.

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