LOS ANGELES (CBS) — Broadcast network executives breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday after the Supreme Court ruled against sanctions leveled by federal regulators over curse words and nudity aired on TV.
But the justices declined to issue a broad ruling on the constitutionality of the Federal Communications Commission’s indecency policy.
Instead, the court concluded only that broadcasters could not have known in advance that obscenities uttered during awards show programs and a brief display of nudity on an episode of ABC’s “NYPD Blue” could give rise to penalties. ABC and 45 affiliates were hit with proposed fines totaling nearly $1.24 million.
The justices said the FCC is free to revise its indecency policy, which is intended to keep the airwaves free of objectionable material during the hours when children are likely to be watching.
The agency’s chairman, Julius Genachowski, said the ruling “appears to be narrowly limited to procedural issues related to actions taken a number of years ago. Consistent with vital First Amendment principles, the FCC will carry out Congress’s directive to protect young TV viewers.”
It was the second time the court has confronted, but not ruled conclusively on the FCC’s policy on isolated expletives. Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his opinion for the court that “it is unnecessary for the court to address the constitutionality of the current policy.”
CBS News Senior Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen said the court’s narrow decision could mean that the justices struggled and failed to reach agreement on a broader outcome.
“Clearly the court wasn’t looking for a fight, wasn’t looking to use this case as a way to decide the constitutionality of the rule,” said Cohen. “That’s why the decision was so short and without much dissent.”
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