Apr 282009

>The Supreme Court has upheld a crackdown by the Federal Communications Commission on the use of indecent language–even the fleeting utterance of a single expletive–on broadcast television. At least for now…

An earlier federal appeals panel had overturned recent FCC policy, which had arisen largely in response to brief and spontaneous exclamations during live awards programs from the likes of Cher, Bono and Nicole Richie, chiefly involving the ever-popular and–as referred to by the court– “f-” and “s-” words.

This latest decision supports the FCC’s contention that profanity referring to sex or excrement is always indecent, no matter the context. But, as noted in an AP account of the court’s ruling:

Justice John Paul Stevens said in dissent that the FCC missed the mark in failing to distinguish how the offending words are used. “As any golfer who has watched his partner shank a short approach knows,” said Stevens, an avid golfer, “it would be absurd to accept the suggestion that the resultant four-letter word uttered on the golf course describes sex or excrement.

While today’s ruling dealt solely with whether the FCC had followed proper administrative procedures in establishing the new policy, still to be addressed is whether or not the restrictions are constitutional in the first place, with promising glimmers that the entire question of limits on broadcast speech may be reconsidered whole hog. Though Justice Clarence Thomas sided with the majority on this ruling, the AP story continues, he noted that the court’s previous decision and an even earlier case “were unconvincing when they were issued, and the passage of time has only increased doubt regarding their continued validity.”

The last major ruling by the Supreme Court on broadcast indecency was in 1978, when it upheld the FCC’s case involving George Carlin’s classic “seven dirty words,” as so infamously recounted below:

Mar 262008


Fox Television is standing firm (sorry) in the face of a $91,000 fine thrust (yep!) upon it by the Federal Communications Commission for a single episode of its reality series, Married by America.

Despite Fox’s argument that the material in question was not statutorily indecent, an FCC analyst maintained:
Even with Fox’s editing, the episode includes scenes in which partygoers lick whipped cream from strippers’ bodies in a sexually suggestive manner. Another scene features a man on all fours in his underwear as two female strippers playfully spank him. Although the episode electronically obscures any nudity, the sexual nature of the scenes is inescapable, as the strippers attempt to lure partygoers into sexually compromising situations.
(taken from Variety via Defamer)

While that might sound like the plot-line of your typical mid-season replacement sitcom – “the guys run amuck!” – the amount of the fine was originally $1.2 million, levied to include all 169 stations, at $7,000 each, airing the 2003 episode. That amount has since been reduced by the FCC so that only the 13 stations that ostensibly received complaints would be fined, but even that degree of outcry is suspect. Through just a bit of sleuthing, journalist Jeff Jarvis uncovered that the number of complaints was not 159, but merely 23. And of those, all but two were identical form letters, boiling down to three original complaints out of millions viewing.

Instead of paying the reduced amount, Fox will file a request that the FCC completely reconsider the fine. In another case currently pending Supreme Court review, Fox also successfully sued the agency over a new restriction on “fleeting” expletives.

The world watches. (Or pretends otherwise, but secretly Tivos.)