Advanced Television

US indecency goes to Supreme Court

March 19, 2008

For the first time in 30 years, the US Supreme Court will tackle the issue of whether there are certain words that can’t be said on television and radio. The court agreed to hear a case that challenges one aspect of the campaign by the Bush administration and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin to crack down on broadcast indecency and obscenity. Under Martin, the FCC pushed through a new policy exposing broadcasters to fines whenever a forbidden word went over the air, even if uttered inadvertently on a live broadcast.

Broadcasters, under competitive pressure from cable networks that aren’t bound by FCC decency standards, have fought the agency’s efforts to clamp down on swear words and suggestive scenes.

With litigation pending, hundreds of complaints have piled up at the agency over the past few years and only a few fines have been issued. Until the Supreme Court rules on the issue, FCC indecency enforcement is mostly on hold. The Supreme Court agreed to take a case involving the Billboard Music Awards, which in 2002 heard singer Cher utter an obscenity, and a year later a different vulgarity from reality-show personality Nicole Richie. The shows were broadcast by Fox Television, a unit of News Corp.

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