April 28th, 2009
11:38 AM ET
5 years ago

Supreme Court rules against networks on indecent speech

The 5-4 vote was a victory for Bush-era officials who pushed fines and sanctions when racy images and language reached the airwaves.
The 5-4 vote was a victory for Bush-era officials who pushed fines and sanctions when racy images and language reached the airwaves.

WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that federal regulators have the authority to clamp down on broadcast TV networks that air isolated cases of profanity, known as "fleeting expletives."

The 5-4 vote was a victory for Bush-era officials who pushed fines and sanctions when racy images and language reached the airwaves.

Controversial words have been aired in scripted and unscripted instances on all the major over-the-air networks in the past six years - dating back to when the Federal Communications Commission began considering a stronger, no-tolerance policy.

"It suffices the new policy is permissible under the statute, there are good reasons for it, and the agency believes it to be better," said Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the conservative majority.

The high court, however, refused to decide whether the commission's policy violates the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. It ruled only on the agency's enforcement power. The justices ordered the free-speech aspect to be reviewed again by a federal appeals court.

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were parties in the case. A federal appeals court in New York had ruled in their favor, calling the commission's policy "arbitrary and capricious."

The commission then appealed to the Supreme Court, seeking restoration of its power to penalize the networks airing "indecent" speech, even if it is broadcast only one time, and even if it does not describe a specific sex act.

The high court agreed to some extent. "Even when used as an expletive, the F-word's power to insult and offend derives from its sexual meaning," wrote Scalia.

Such language is heard with greater, albeit varying, frequency on cable television, the Internet, and satellite radio, which do not use public airwaves. But the federal government is charged with responding to viewer complaints when "indecent" language reaches broadcast television and radio, which is subject to greater regulation. That is especially relevant during daytime and early evening hours, when larger numbers of families and younger viewers may be watching.

The communications commission formally reversed its policy in March 2004 to declare even a single use of an expletive could be illegal.

The changes became known as the "Golden Globes Rule," for singer Bono's 2003 acceptance speech at the awards show on NBC, where he uttered the phrase "really, really, f-ing brilliant."

The commission specifically cited celebrities Cher and Nicole Richie for potty-mouth language in the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards, which aired on Fox. Richie, in an apparent scripted moment said, "Have you ever tried to get cow s–t out of a Prada purse? It's not so f-ing simple."

The complaint against ABC involved "NYPD Blue," a now-canceled scripted police drama, and the CBS' complaint involved "The Early Show," a news and interview program.

Enforcement of the law had been put on hold while the case was being argued.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said "customs of speech" made the Federal Communications Commission's position unworkable.

"As any golfer who has watched his partner shank a short approach knows, it would be absurd to accept the suggestion that the resultant four-letter word uttered on the golf course describes sex or excrement and is therefore indecent," he wrote. "But that is the absurdity the FCC has embraced in its new approach to indecency."

The Supreme Court first ventured into the broadcast speech debate in 1978, when it ruled as indecent a monologue by comedian George Carlin on society's taboo surrounding "seven dirty words." The bit had received some radio airplay. Stevens, 89, was the author of that opinion.

Time Warner - the parent company of CNN - filed an amicus brief supporting the networks fined by the communications commission. The company is part owner of the CW broadcast network, and operates several cable networks.

The case is FCC v. Fox Television Stations (07-582).


Filed under: Supreme Court
soundoff (171 Responses)
  1. Tom in Florida

    Activist judges are restricting free speech. I don't want or need the government to tell me my morality or how to raise my family.

    April 28, 2009 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  2. none of your business

    Since when should filthy language be accepted? when some idiots haven't learned how to have proper English? people should not have to by pass watching tv or enjoying any other form of media because some people can't speak without using 'offensive' language. For those who like the way the English live, go to England. Don't continue to pollute the American society - either grow up or go somewhere else!

    April 28, 2009 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  3. DJ

    This is not a free speech issue, you angry libs out there who are not offended by "words" should know that you are being played. The big evil corporations (as you call them) are programming racy words into tv shows so more people will watch them (sort of like when people stop to see car accidents). They also do it because they lack the ability to put quality content out so they resort to cursing to make them 'edgy'. Letting them do it makes our society a little less civilized. Also consider the little ones who are unsupervised who get to listen to these words as they continue to make their way into prime time shows. What is the upside to our society to have profanity on tv? All I hear from you in these comments is how you hate Bush Cheney Republicans etc...I know, why don't you try to come up with an actual reason for your position.

    April 28, 2009 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  4. JRauz

    We've become a society of self-indulgent people who only care about themselves and not their neighbors. What happened to respect? Our citizens have entertained a lawless attitude, where their way is the only way. It's sad when selfishness dictates your life. And the lack of vocabulary also shows that we are a country of the uneducated. When people act his way it is a serious blow to the character of the USA.

    April 28, 2009 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  5. Rob271828

    Censorship is a practice that always begins with peoples "best interests" in mind but will almost always end up in oppression.

    You should not EVER try to disrupt the flow of information in a free society.

    Besides, words only have the power that society places on them. Rulings like this just make those words that much "worse."

    April 28, 2009 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  6. Alex

    I do my share of cursing, etc. but I do refrain from it in in public. I do so to be considerate and respectful of those around me, their family, etc. However, many could care less about such things and usually are those that most would consider vulgar. A slip now and then can be overlooked... no big deal, but nobody want to listen a continual stream from a fowl motor- mouth.

    Further, the media has a nasty habit of pushing things onto their viewing public and making it seem like it's cool. I view it as the apparently continual process of dumbing down the American public.

    Most kids/younger folks will likely scoff at my view but consider that I am 71... I have been there and back and learned a few things on the way? ;)

    April 28, 2009 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  7. Linda

    Free speech means you have the right to express your opinions without persecution. It doesn't give you the right to curse and offend
    others. You can get a point across without using vile language.

    April 28, 2009 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  8. Dave

    Isn't it wonderful that Bush's morality-police are around to help protect us from words and thoughts? With their helpful guidance, soon we'll all be exactly the same, and that will be wonderful! We won't even have to think anymore. Obviously, we can't be trusted to make our own decisions about what material we avail ourselves of.

    April 28, 2009 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  9. Rick

    I'm utterly shocked at now many posters here failed to comprehend the article.

    This ruling is an enforcement issue, not a free speech issue.
    SCOTUS simply stated that the FCC has the right to enforce its policies about the type of language broadcast on public airwaves.

    This does not affect Cable, Satellite or other forms of paid television broadcasts.
    They can broadcast whatever they want since the broadcast medium is not public.

    It left the free speech aspect out of the ruling and sent it to the lower court for review.

    April 28, 2009 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  10. Mark C.

    So given this decision we can sum up the foolishness with this. On TV you can show gratuitous violence and have people give detailed descriptions of exactly how the killer/rapist character tormented and mutilated his victims... as long as the hard-nosed detective calls him a "sick mother-freaker" instead of using naughty language.

    I hope people grow up about choice and free will soon. If you don't like what you're hearing or watching, use your remote and find something you do like or turn it off and actually read a !@#$% book! Be warned, the characters will probably swear in the book.

    April 28, 2009 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  11. Liberty

    While I certainly understand the concern for free speech, as a parent I am concerned about the increase in swearing in our culture. @Wi Student said people swear all the time so we should just accept it. So if everyone illegally downloads music from Limewire it should be ok because everyone is doing it right?

    Networks have an obligation to let viewers know what they are going to see. I can turn off the television if there is something that I don't approve my kids to watch. But if I don't know what to expect how can I make that decision. Everyone was up in arms about TV ratings but it gives consumers the information they need to decide if they will tune in or not.

    Personally I find the use of cursing to show an ignorance of vocabulary but that doesn't mean people don't have a right to do it. When there is no moral compass to at least have the respect to accept that some people find it offensive then laws must help this out. As an example it is against the law for me to have my music in my car cranked up for the entire community to hear because some people cannot perceive that others would be offended and fail to show respect for other viewpoints.

    April 28, 2009 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  12. Mike in Texas

    I agree with Clyde's post. Don't watch TV if you don't like it. Get involved with your kids lives instead of letting them watch TV, eat fast food and drink soda and get fat and diabetic before they are an adult. Parents, be parents and take some responsibility.

    For Ernie in L.A.: How did anything you mention have to do with the constitution? Nothing. In fact, prayer in school is contradictory to the principles of our founding fathers. Also, the Bush administration did more to damage the constitution than any other administration. Open our eyes because your ignorance or maybe stupidity is showing.

    April 28, 2009 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  13. Phil

    It's amazing how many people feel inclined to post their opinions here when it's clear they haven't even read the Supreme Court opinion on which they're commenting.

    April 28, 2009 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  14. This is not CHANGE we need or want

    People grow up or stop watching TV. There is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of curse words sprinked throught a TV show. I get tired of hearing the moronic "bleeps" when I watch the "Newz" or the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. I don't need a nanny to tell me what I should hear. There's enough chaildren's garbage on TV for parents to find something besides grow-up shows for their kids to watch. Not everything needs to be watered down for six year olds to watch.

    April 28, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  15. Art

    I am very happy with Supreme Courts ruling. There is no need for swear words on TV. They don't contribute anything worthwhile to the content. Let's face it....swearing is really quite immature. The only reason why broadcasters like it is because iti appeals to the youths and improve their ratings.

    I'm know we've all done it...especially in our youths....But I think America should hold itself to a higher standard and not allow the broadcast industry to make more money at the expense of polluting the air waves.

    April 28, 2009 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  16. Disillussioned - Atlanta, Ga.

    Much as I hate to see the members of the fourth estate being muzzled, I can understand the Supreme Court's concerns and ultimate ruling. Most of us have either lost our social and civil conscience. Some of us never even acquired these base requirements for social and civic participation. Just read online blogs and post!

    In this era of the TV is doing double duty as our entertainment source and our nanny, we have to be very careful with the language we use. Sure I detest having my free speech right curtailed. But, I fault myself for that.

    April 28, 2009 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  17. I don't want kids

    Guess what. The whole world does not evolve around children. Why the hell are so many children watching the idiot box to begin with? Get off your ass and change the channel if you don't like it.

    April 28, 2009 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  18. Sniffit

    What's next? No commercials regarding birth control, family planning or abortion? No tv programming with images of a "sexual nature"? Banning any reference to homosexuality on tv? Where does it end? This slippery slope is one of the worst decisions in recent history and represents the danger of a POTUS and/or his party not recognizing the value of having a balanced Supreme Court and instead trying to pack it with "true believers." Scalia and the rest of them shoudl be ashamed of themselves and we should all do our best to make this a black mark on his and their careers.

    April 28, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  19. Maggie

    So we still can't have a wardrobe malfunction but we can have commercials about erectile dysfunction and KY, huh?

    April 28, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  20. Brady

    Some people need to work on their reading comprehension....

    For all those out there bashing 'liberals' for this ruling, reread the article. This was a CONSERVATIVE RULING! This was a movement to censor material on television. It had nothing to do with the Democrats. The judges who voted FOR THIS RULING were appointed by Bush.

    Gotta love when some Republican morons bash their own party's ideals and claim them to be Democrat....LOLOL

    April 28, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  21. Kevin

    Cuss words change over time.

    They are just sound waves.

    April 28, 2009 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
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