By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Supreme Court upheld on Tuesday a U.S. government crackdown on profanity on television, a policy that subjects broadcasters to fines for airing a single expletive blurted out on a live show.
In its first ruling on broadcast indecency standards in more than 30 years, the high court handed a victory to the Federal Communications Commission, which adopted the crackdown against the one-time use of profanity on live television when children are likely to be watching.
The case stemmed from an FCC ruling in 2006 that found News Corp’s Fox television network violated decency rules when singer Cher blurted out an expletive during the 2002 Billboard Music Awards broadcast and actress Nicole Richie used two expletives during the 2003 awards.
No fines were imposed, but Fox challenged the decision and a U.S. appeals court in New York struck down the new policy as "arbitrary and capricious" and sent the case back to the FCC for a more reasoned explanation of its policy.
The FCC, under the administration of President George W. Bush, had embarked on a crackdown of indecent content on broadcast TV and radio after pop star Janet Jackson briefly exposed her bare breast during the 2004 broadcast of the Super Bowl halftime show.
Before 2004, the FCC did not ordinarily enforce prohibitions against indecency unless there were repeated occurrences.
By a 5-4 vote and splitting along conservative-liberal lines, the justices overturned the ruling by the appeals court and said the FCC’s new policy and its findings in the two cases were neither arbitrary nor capricious.
"The agency’s reasons for expanding its enforcement activity, moreover, were entirely rational," Justice Antonin Scalia said in summarizing the court’s majority ruling from the bench.
"Even when used as an expletive, the F-word’s power to insult and offend derives from its sexual meaning," he said.
Government lawyers in the case have said the policy covered so-called "fleeting expletives," such as the "F-word" and the "S-word" that denote "sexual or excretory activities," respectively.
(Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Dave Zimmerman)