The federal appeals court on Monday dealt a setback in the Federal Communications Commission's effort to regulate nudity and profanity on television as it refused to fine CBS $550,000 for the Janet Jackson indecent exposure incident during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against FCC, saying the agency "acted arbitrarily and capriciously" in penalizing the network for a "fleeting image of nudity."
The three-judge panel decided that the network wasn't liable for the "wardrobe malfunction" incident that left Jackson's bared breast for 90 million viewers to see because the material appeared to be "unscripted." The court also ruled that the exposure was too brief to violate FCC rules designed to keep children from seeing indecent material broadcast between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Monday's ruling follows another high-profile case challenging FCC's authority. Last spring, a different federal appeals court ruled that an FCC rule targeting "fleeting expletives" was unconstitutional. That case was appealed by the Bush administration and will be heard by the Supreme Court this fall.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin contested the ruling on the Super Bowl fine.
"I am surprised by today's decision and disappointed for families and parents," he said in a statement. "The Super Bowl is one of the most watched shows on television, aired during the hours when children are most likely to be in the audience."
"I continue to believe that this incident was inappropriate, and this only highlights the importance of the Supreme Court's consideration of our indecency rules this fall," he added.
Dan Isett, director of public policy for the Parents Television Council, the group that triggered a flood of complaints to the FCC following the Jackson incident, called Monday's ruling a "terrible decision."
"I think once again you have a situation where the broadcast networks and federal judges are subjugating the will of the people," commented Isett, according to Broadcasting & Cable.
Isett pledged that his group would push FCC to appeal the decision.
During the halftime performance, Jackson and Justin Timberlake sang a medley of provocative songs which were accompanied by suggestive dance moves by both singers. It was when Timberlake reached the final line of the song, "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of this song" that he yanked off a part of Jackson's costume to reveal her right breast.
Many pro-family and media watchdog groups joined parents in a public outcry over the indecent exposure, rejecting claims by the network that the incident was simply a "wardrobe malfunction."
The incident prompted Congress to overwhelmingly pass the Broadcast Decency Act to dramatically increase indecency fines by 10 times to $325,000 per station for an incident.