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Supreme Court throws out FCC fines for indecency policy violations

Nicole Richie (right with Paris Hilton) swore during live awards show 2003. | Joe Cavaretta~AP

Nicole Richie (right, with Paris Hilton) swore during a live awards show in 2003. | Joe Cavaretta~AP

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Updated: July 23, 2012 7:43AM



WASHINGTON — Broadcasters anticipating a major constitutional ruling on the government’s authority to regulate what can be shown and said on the airwaves instead won only the smallest of Supreme Court victories Thursday.

The justices unanimously threw out fines and other penalties against Fox and ABC television stations that violated the Federal Communications Commission policy regulating curse words and nudity on television airwaves.

Forgoing a broader constitutional ruling, however, the court concluded only that broadcasters could not have known in advance that obscenities uttered during awards show programs on Fox stations and a brief display of nudity on an episode of ABC’s “NYPD Blue” could give rise to penalties. ABC and 45 affiliates had been hit with proposed fines totaling nearly $1.24 million.

Broadcasters had argued that the revolution in technology that has brought the Internet, satellite television and cable has made the rules themselves obsolete. The regulations apply only to broadcast channels.

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.”

The material at issue in Thursday’s decision included the isolated use of expletives as well as fines against broadcasters who showed a woman’s nude buttocks on a 2003 episode of “NYPD Blue.”

In December 2002, singer Cher used the phrase “F--- ’em” during the Billboard Music Awards show on the Fox television network. A month later, U2 lead singer Bono uttered the phrase “f------ brilliant” during NBC’s broadcast of the Golden Globes awards show. During the December 2003 Billboard awards show on Fox, reality show star Nicole Richie said, “Have you ever tried to get cow s--- out of a Prada purse? It’s not so f------simple.”

AP



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