Nation/World


Supreme Court weighing fines for profanity on TV

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 5, 2008

Fox Television fighting new FCC policy

WASHINGTON – A clearly divided Supreme Court on Tuesday debated indecent language for an hour without anyone using the words in question.

Circumlocutions like “the F-word” and “the S-word” sufficed as the court considered the year’s highest-profile free-speech controversy. All signs now point to a tight decision over whether broadcasters can be fined for allowing use of so-called “fleeting expletives,” which are swear words used in passing.

The court’s conservative justices showed sympathy for the Federal Communications Commission members who want to punish broadcasters. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia denounced the “coarsening” effect of swearing, while Chief Justice John Roberts warned about “impressionable children” being harmed by inherently dirty words.

“Why do you think the F-word has shocking value?” Roberts asked rhetorically. “It’s because it’s associated with sexual or excretory activity; that’s what gives it its force.”

Added Scalia, “that’s what gives it its zing.”

But other justices sounded more willing to tolerate the occasional swear word, with Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, a Navy veteran, noting that sometimes “you can’t help but laugh” at how a swear word is deployed. More pointedly, some justices suggested the FCC’s stern new swear words policy came about arbitrarily.

“There seems to be no rhyme or reason with some of the changes the commission has made,” Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

The dispute in the case called FCC v. Fox Television Stations centers on two questions. The broader one is whether regulators violate First Amendment free speech rights by fining broadcasters for an occasional swear word. The other question is narrower, and it might be the only one the court actually decides: whether the FCC acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in changing its policy about indecent language in 2004.

“It was, at a minimum, a rational policy choice,” Solicitor General Gregory Garre insisted.

Loosening indecency standards, Garre warned ominously, could lead to “Big Bird dropping the F-bomb on ‘Sesame Street.’ ”

Attorney Carter Phillips, representing Fox Television Stations, retorted that “there was no explanation” for the FCC’s policy change.

The policy change in question arose following a live 2003 broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards, when lead singer Bono from the Irish rock band U2 declared his award was “really, really, f-ing brilliant.”

FCC career staffers initially considered such language the kind of passing expletive, drained of sexual content, that has been grudgingly accepted for the past three decades. This reasoning dates back to a mid-1970s Supreme Court decision, involving comedian George Carlin, in which the court determined that “isolated use of a potentially offensive word” differs from the “verbal shock treatment” of profane repetition.

The politically appointed FCC then reversed the staff decision and declared that even a fleeting reference to what the commission called “the F-word” could be deemed unacceptable. The fines for broadcasters could potentially reach as high as $325,000.

A court decision is expected by next June.


 

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