On Tuesday, January 10, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding the Federal Communication Commision (FCC) and its regulations preventing networks from airing indecent programming or profane language. The Supreme Court seemed to side with the FCC but will not issue a final opinion until July.

This is actually the second time the Supreme Court has heard this case, FCC v. Fox (although on separate issues), and this case has a long and involved history. It began back in 2002 when singer Cher, who was presenting at the Billboard Music Awards, rsponded to her critics by saying “f**k’em” on air. Then in 2003, also on the Billboard Music Awards, Nicole Richie stated: “Why do they even call it The Simple Life? Have you ever tried to get cow s*** out of a Prada purse? It’s not so f***ing simple.”  In response to these events, the FCC fined Fox for airing the profane language even though they were mere “fleeting expletives.” The first time FCC v. Fox came to the Supreme Court, a 5-4 decision ruled that the FCC’s policies and fines were not arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act. However, it remanded for the Second Circuit to decide the First Amendment issue.

This issue is what the Supreme Court heard on Tuesday: is the FCC’s policy that prohibits indecent material and profane speech between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. unconstitutional?  On remand the Second Circuit decided the FCC’s regulations are unconstitutional because they are impermissibly vague.  This violates the First Amendment because these regulations can have a chilling effect on free speech when television networks have no notice as to what exactly would fall under these regulations.

The rationale behind the FCC’s policy is to protect children from indecent and profane language on television and, as Justice Scalia said during oral arguments on Tuesday, “the government is entitled to insist upon a certain modicrum of decency.” But how does this policy actually protect children when they can just as easily get on the Internet where there is no censorship at all?

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith recently stated his thoughts on the issue–that puns and inferences are okay, but if the FCC does not regulate networks, then creativity and fun would disappear because everything would be expletives. On the other side of the debate, the popular television show South Park cleverly expressed its disagreement with the FCC’s policy by airing an episode where the main characters watch the first time “s***” was said uncensored on television.  Afterwards, a plague engulfs the town and the townspeople go crazy saying s*** constantly. The tally at the bottom of the screen informs the viewer that the episode exclaims the word a total of 162 times.  Clever way for South Park to say – what evils can really come from saying curse words on television?

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, the debate is likely to continue as supporters on both sides feel very strongly about the issue.  However, until they issue a final opinion on the constitutionality of the FCC’s rules, the networks will just have to listen to the s*** the FCC says.

Megan LaDriere

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2 Responses to S*** TV Networks Say and Why the FCC Won’t Let Them Say It

  1. Kevin Lumpkin says:

    I think it was a line of argument between Justice Kagan and the attorney for the FCC that teased out the real crux of the vagueness argument here. The examples listed in this post were deemed to be offensive and fine-worthy, but when a network aired Saving Private Ryan, the expeltives in that movie were deemed inoffensive and not subject to fines. Kagan concluded that the FCC’s policy was that “nobody can use dirty words or nudity except for Steven Spielberg.”

    Forcing networks to guess as to what’s appropriate and what’s not for fear of being fined is the very definition of vague regulation. It’s even worse for fleeting expeltives, because the guessing occurs in a split second and there’s not enough time to consider the context.

    Let’s say ABC is airing a live remote interview with a soldier in Afghanistan when an explosion goes off in the background, promoting the soldier to yell an expeltive. Is that offensive and worthy of a fine? I don’t know that anyone can tell you the answer, and therein lies the problem

  2. Teddy Bear says:

    Brodcast TV, for the most part is sh** so adding swearing will only make it worse.