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Supreme Court indecency ruling in FCC vs. Fox TV – does it really matter?

The Supreme Court case pits the FCC against nudity and profanity on broadcast TV. But the truth is, we’ve been looking at the bottom for so long, looking at a naked bottom won’t make a difference. Only one ruling matters, and that’s the ruling every parent makes at home.

By Jim Sollisch / June 18, 2012

Bono, right, and The Edge pose after winning the Golden Globe for best Original Song at the 60th annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2003. The FCC fined Bono for saying the F-word in a live broadcast, setting the stage for the Supreme Court case pitting the FCC against Fox TV. Op-ed contributor Jim Sollisch explains: 'It’s easy to regulate the F-word but not all the disturbing subject matter that finds its way into almost every sitcom, drama, and newscast.'

Reed Saxon/AP/File



Some time soon, the Supreme Court will hand down its decision in a case that pits the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) against Fox TV. Really, it’s the FCC against the use of nudity and profanity on broadcast television.

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While the court deliberated, so did I. Originally, I was planning to prepare this commentary as a reaction to the ruling right after the momentous decision came out. But the more I deliberated, the more I realized that this decision is about as momentous as whether to have hot or cold cereal for breakfast. The court could use a coin to decide this one, so little difference will it make.

Only one ruling matters in this case, and that’s the ruling every parent makes at home.

First, some context. The Court ruled in 1978 that the FCC could fine broadcasters for displays of nudity or profanity during prime time. But fines were rarely doled out. Then in 2003, Bono said the "f-word" on a live broadcast of the Golden Globes. The FCC started cracking down, and a case was born. Fox and other broadcasters are asking the court to overturn the 1978 ruling, arguing that in an era of freer regulation on cable, the law is outdated.

So what’s really at stake? The government believes there has to be a safe haven maintained so parents can put their kids in front of the TV at certain hours, turn to a specific channel, and not worry. Has anyone in the government watched TV lately?

You can keep banning nudity and the occasional swear word, but that won’t get rid of talk shows that discuss deviant sexual behavior, entertainment shows that feature a parade of celebrity misbehavior, newscasts highlighting the latest in local rapes and murders, and a plethora of "Law and Order: SVU" re-runs, where children are routinely kidnapped and abused.

Good thing the government is protecting your child from a glimpse of a nude behind.

During oral arguments, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said that if the court were to overrule its 33-year-old decision, “the risk of a race to the bottom is real.” I’d say that race is over. We’ve been looking at the bottom for so long, looking at a naked bottom won’t really make a difference. It’s part of the bill we pay for freedom of expression.

The problem with regulation is that we can only regulate what we can regulate. It’s easy to regulate the f-word but not all the disturbing subject matter that finds its way into almost every sitcom, drama, and newscast.


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