Supreme Court backs FCC crackdown on swearing on television
In a 5-to-4 ruling, the top court upheld the regulator's 2004 decision to hold broadcasters liable for the occasional expletive.
The US Supreme Court has delivered some welcome news to parents worried about their children hearing foul language on broadcast television.Skip to next paragraph
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In a 5-to-4 decision announced Tuesday, the high court said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did not abuse its discretion in a 2004 crackdown on indecent language on prime time TV. The majority said the FCC did not act arbitrarily or capriciously when it announced that broadcasters might be held liable for the occasional use of a single indecent word on public airwaves.
"Today's ruling by the Supreme Court is an incredible victory for families," said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, in a statement. "We must put the well-being of children first and allow certain hours of the broadcast day to be a safe haven for families."
The case likely sets the stage for a broader free-speech showdown in the future between government regulators and broadcasters.
The action reverses a decision of the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, which ruled the agency failed to follow proper procedures in cracking down against the increasing use of the so-called "f" word and "s" word on broadcast television.
The crackdown marked a major shift from a long-time FCC policy that broadcasters would not be punished for the occasional, isolated blooper.
Under the old policy, only repetitive and intentional use of foul language in a broadcast would trigger sanctions, and even then only if the conduct rose to the level of verbal "shock treatment."
That more forgiving policy held for 25 years. It was aimed at balancing broadcasters' First Amendment free-speech rights against the government's interest in helping parents protect their children from indecency on radio and television.
"It suffices to know that children mimic the behavior they observe," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in upholding the FCC policy. "Programming replete with one-word indecent expletives will tend to produce children who use (at least) one-word indecent expletives."
The high court also criticized the Second Circuit judges for "quibbling" with the FCC's policy choices. "We decline to substitute our judgment for that of the agency," Justice Scalia said in his opinion.
"Of course, the agency must show that there are good reasons for the new policy," he wrote. "But it need not demonstrate to a court's satisfaction that the reasons for the new policy are better than the reasons for the old one."
He added, "It suffices that the new policy is permissible under the statute, that there are good reasons for it, and that the agency believes it to be better."
In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the FCC failed to rely on traditional notice-and-comment procedures used by administrative agencies. He said the agency also failed to adequately explain its reasons for changing the policy.
"I would find the FCC's decision arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion," he wrote.
Both the majority and dissenting justices acknowledged the new policy raises free-speech issues.
"There is no way to hide the long shadow the First Amendment casts over what the commission has done, " Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent.
The majority judges disagreed. "It is conceivable that the commission's orders may cause some broadcasters to avoid certain language that is beyond the commission's reach under the Constitution," Justice Scalia wrote. "Whether that is so, and, if so, whether it is unconstitutional will be determined soon enough, perhaps in this very case."