Top court considers television dirty words case

Tue Nov 4, 2008 2:36pm EST
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By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court appeared divided on Tuesday over a U.S. government crackdown on dirty words on television as the justices carefully avoided uttering the two four-letter expletives at the heart of the case.

In considering the policy that subjects broadcasters to fines for airing a single expletive blurted out on a live television show, the justices and the lawyers who argued the case instead referred to the "F word" and the "S word."

Several liberal justices seemed concerned over how broadcasters could prevent dirty words from being aired at live events like sports contests and whether the words might have other meanings beyond sexual or excretory connotations.

Some of the conservative justices appeared supportive of the crackdown adopted by the Federal Communications Commission against the one-time use of profanity on live television when children are likely to be watching.

The Supreme Court during the 60 minutes of arguments reviewed broadcast indecency standards for the first time in 30 years. A ruling is expected in the first part of next year.

The case stemmed from a FCC ruling in 2006 that found News Corp's Fox television network violated decency rules when singer Cher blurted out an expletive during the 2002 Billboard Music Awards broadcast and actress Nicole Richie used two during the 2003 awards.

No fines were imposed, but Fox challenged the decision and a U.S. appeals court in New York struck down the new policy as "arbitrary and capricious" and sent the case back to the FCC for a more reasoned explanation of its policy.

The FCC, under the administration of President George W. Bush, has embarked on a crackdown of indecent content on broadcast TV and radio after pop star Janet Jackson briefly exposed her bare breast during the 2004 broadcast of the Super Bowl halftime show.   Continued...