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Supreme Court sides with broadcasters on cussing, nudity

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The Supreme Court chose to keep the country in suspense today over its momentous health care ruling, and instead issued a decision confirming that the FCC was wrong to sanction Fox over brief f-bombs by Cher and Nicole Richie.

In a unanimous ruling, the court declined to take up larger First Amendment questions about the degree to which swearing and nudity are protected speech. Instead, the justices found that the federal regulator had used overly vague guidelines to sanction Fox and ABC news and failed to give the broadcasters adequate notice about the rules.

In the case of Fox, the decision turned on so-called “fleeting expletives” such as when celebrity Nicole Richie make the unscripted remark  “Have you ever tried to get cow s*** out of a Prada purse? It’s not so f***ing simple” during an award show. The FCC warned Fox but did not fine the station but it did levy a fine on ABC News for showing an actress’ bare bottom for seven seconds.

The Court concluded that, since it could throw out FCC’s swearing and nudity decisions on vagueness grounds, it did not have to take up the First Amendment questions.

The question of swearing, free speech and broadcasting remains informed by a 1978 Supreme Court decision involving comedian George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue.

In an odd pairing, liberal Justice Ruth Ginsburg and conservative Justice Clarence Thomas added a one paragraph concurring opinion arguing that the Carlin case was out of date due to “time” and “technological advances” and should be reconsidered.

To learn more about the fleeting executives case, see our earlier Q & A.