The Supreme Court Tuesday narrowly ruled in favor of a government policy that threatens broadcasters with fines over the use of even a single curse word on live radio and television. Yet it stopped short of deciding whether the policy violates the Constitution.
This is the first time the court has looked at the issue in 30 years.
Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps called the vote a “big win” for America’s families, stating, “The Court recognized that when broadcasters are granted free and exclusive use of a valuable public resource, they incur enforceable public interest obligations.”
The 5-4 decision throws out a lower-court ruling. The earlier decision was in favor of a challenge to the policy led by Fox Television and had returned the case to the FCC to let the agency provide a “reasoned analysis” for its tougher line on indecency.
The commission appealed to the Supreme Court instead.
The justices did not judge whether the FCC’s so-called “fleeting expletives” policy is in line with First Amendment guarantees of free speech. The justices said a federal appeals court should weigh the constitutionality of the policy.
Observers say the close vote almost guarantees the issue will be revisited.
Indeed, National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton stated, “Regardless of today’s opinion, broadcasters will continue to offer programming that is reflective of the diverse communities we serve. Nonetheless, we’re disappointed the court majority seemingly failed to understand the need for clear and consistent regulatory policies, especially in light of the various ways audiences now receive broadcast programming. We continue to believe that voluntary self regulation — coupled with blocking technologies like the V-chip — is far preferable to government regulation of program content, and we question why speech restrictions should apply only to broadcasters.”