Washington — The Supreme Court this week may re-open for the first time in more than 30 years the debate over what qualifies as an "indecent" broadcast.
The media environment has changed dramatically since the court last ruled on this issue in 1978: Viewers and listeners today are exposed to the more freewheeling cable TV, Internet and "shock jocks" on satellite radio.
The issue before the court now is delicately described as the problem of "fleeting expletives" in over-the-air broadcasts, which are still regulated. TV viewers who watch the entertainment industry's award shows may be familiar with the phenomenon. "This is really, really f---ing brilliant," rock singer Bono exclaimed when accepting a Golden Globes Award for the Best Original Song in 2003. His comment was broadcast live on NBC.
After receiving complaints from angry viewers, the Federal Communications Commission moved to crack down on broadcasters who air "isolated or fleeting expletives" during daytime and early evening hours.
Last year, Fox and other networks sued to block the policy, and an appeals court in New York put it on hold. Now, the FCC is asking the Supreme Court to clear the way so the new crackdown can be enforced. The justices may act on the agency's appeal as soon as today. If they vote to hear FCC v. Fox TV, arguments would be heard in the fall.
The appellate judges in New York who blocked the new FCC policy said it was arbitrary and vague. It does not, for example, say all expletives will trigger fines from the FCC regardless of the circumstances. News program and movies such as "Saving Private Ryan" were given exemptions. Including profanity from soldiers on the D-Day beaches was not intended to shock or titillate, the FCC said, but instead helped "convey the horrors of war."
At the same time, the appellate judges hinted that a true ban on all expletives would violate the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee.