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The Supreme Court Joins the Indecency Battle

As I wrote in April, the FCC decided after much delay to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review a pair of lower court rulings seriously challenging the FCC’s prohibition on indecent programming that airs before 10pm. Today the Supreme Court announced that it has agreed to hear the matter, setting up what could be the most important broadcast content case in decades.

The lower court decisions being challenged by the FCC involve the unintentional airing of isolated expletives on Fox during live awards programs, and an episode of NYPD Blue on ABC that showed a woman’s buttocks (the FCC-approved term for that part of the anatomy). That the underlying facts of these cases are so different (an accidental expletive on live TV versus scripted nudity in a dramatic program) increases the likelihood of a relatively broad indecency decision by the Court, as opposed to a narrow finding that the FCC was or wasn’t justified in pursuing a particular case based on the facts of that case.

The Court could ultimately support the government’s general right to police indecency while finding fault with the FCC’s current interpretation of how that should be done. However, the elephant in the room is whether it still makes sense for the government to assert that broadcasters have lesser First Amendment rights than all other media. The implications of the Court finding that broadcasters, a major source of news and information for most Americans, have First Amendment rights equivalent to newspapers would create regulatory ripples far beyond indecency policy. For that reason, the Court will likely think long and hard before making such a sweeping pronouncement.

Still, it is increasingly true that most audiences in the U.S. have ceased to draw a distinction between, for example, broadcast channels and cable/satellite channels. As they flip through the growing number of programming channels on their flat screen TVs, or increasingly watch Internet content over those same TVs, the government’s case for regulating the content of a small number of those channels grows more tenuous. The Supreme Court will now tell us whether it has grown too tenuous to continue.