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.
Before 2004, the FCC did not ordinarily enforce prohibitions against indecency unless there were repeated occurrences.
Liberal Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed the most critical of the FCC's new policy.
Stevens asked the government's lawyer whether the word "dung" could use considered indecent and he questioned whether an expletive might be used in a way that has no sexual connotation whatsoever.
Justice Ginsburg said there "seems to be no rhyme or reason" for some of the FCC's decisions. She said the agency allowed the television broadcast of the movie "Saving Private Ryan" even though it contained the same expletives.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia, both conservatives, seemed most supportive of the government's policy.
Scalia blamed television shows for coarsening the language and said he sees nothing wrong with cracking down on bad words on television.
Roberts sharply questioned the lawyer representing Fox. "Why can't the FCC make the same determination that there may be some people offended by this?" he asked. "Not that they automatically impose a sanction, but they're going to look at it."
Carter Phillips, the attorney arguing for Fox, said the policy amounted to a form of censorship and it exposed broadcasters to fines of as much as $325,000.
But the government's lawyer, Solicitor General Gregory Garre, urged the court to reject the position advocated by the television networks, saying they should not be free to broadcast expletives on the "Jeopardy" game show or on the hit show "American Idol."
Editing by Cynthia Osterman