The Supreme Court appeared ready to give government regulators the continuing authority to regulate profanity and sexual content on broadcast television after a lively hour of arguments Tuesday.
The justices and lawyers all stayed polite, not actually using any obscene words, preferring the legally acceptable “f-bomb” or “s-word” to describe the controversial content at issue in the high-stakes free speech dispute.
The court will decide whether the Federal Communications Commission may constitutionally enforce its policies on “fleeting expletives” and scenes of nudity on television programs, both live and scripted. The agency had imposed hefty fines on broadcasters.
In many televised instances, “one cannot tell what is indecent and what isn’t” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “It’s the appearance of arbitrariness about how the FCC is defining indecency in concrete situations,” she added.
But with so many programming choices on broadcast, cable and satellite TV, “All the government is asking for is a few (broadcast) channels where you can say — they are not going to hear the s-word, the f-word. They are not going to see nudity,” Chief Justice John Roberts said.
The court’s ruling, which will come in a few months, could establish important First Amendment guidelines over explicit content on the airwaves.
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