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Court Rejects FCC Fines for TV Indecency, Avoids Broad Ruling on First Amendment

June 22, 2012 (3:20 am) GMT
The Supreme Court rules that it's unfair to fine FOX, ABC and NBC because they didn't know in advance that nudity and obscenities featured in their broadcasts could give rise to penalties.

The Supreme Court opted for a narrow ruling in a case between Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Fox Television. On Thursday, June 21, the court threw out fines levied against several television networks for airing "fleeting expletives" or momentary nudity nearly a decade ago.

FCC claimed ABC was guilty of displaying brief nudity in a 2003 episode of "NYPD Blue". Meanwhile, FOX and NBC were deemed violating FCC's policy by airing celebrities, including , and , using obscenities in 2002 and 2003 live awards show telecasts.

However, the justices argued it's unfair to fine those three networks because their objectionable broadcasts happened before the FCC had adopted its strict policy against fleeting expletives. "A fundamental principle in our legal system is that laws which regulate persons or entities must give fair notice of conduct that is forbidden or required," said Justice Anthony Kennedy. "The commission failed to give Fox or ABC fair notice."

The justices, meanwhile, avoided a broad ruling on the First Amendment and left uncertain the status of the current rules on indecency. In his opinion, Kennedy said "it is unnecessary for the court to address the constitutionality of the current policy."

Commenting on the decision, T. Barton Carter, a law professor at Boston University's College of Communication, said, "The decision is extremely disappointing because the court failed to decide the First Amendment question presented in the case." Paul Smith, a First Amendment expert, chimed in, "The issue will be raised again as broadcasters will continue to try to grapple with the FCC's vague and inconsistent enforcement regime."

Responding to the finding that FCC didn't comply with the procedures, FOX said it was pleased. As for the First Amandment thing, the network stated, "Those issues remain for future litigation depending on what regulatory approach the FCC takes to these broadcasts in the future."

ABC was also happy with the portion of the ruling regarding the "NYPD Blue" case, but refused to comment on another issue.

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