The Federal Communications Commission can enforce its new prohibitions against indecent speech on public television, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Tuesday.
Furthermore, the government body’s new enforcement policy is neither “arbitrary” nor “capricious,” as a court of appeals earlier found it to be, the high court ruled.
“It would be arbitrary or capricious to ignore such matters,” it stated in its majority opinion.
The high court’s 5-4 decision effectively reverses the ruling of a federal appeals court in New York that said the FCC “failed to articulate a reasoned basis” for the change in policy.
The new policy, voted on by the FCC in 2006, states that “unscripted” profanity slips count as indecency and was established after the “F-word” and the “S-word” were used during Fox’s 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards shows.
While broadcasters argued that such regulations hamper their First Amendment rights, the FCC contended that it has the authority to ensure a certain level of decency is maintained in broadcast standards. That includes enforcing federal restrictions on the broadcast of "any obscene, indecent, or profane language," even speech that is "unscripted."
Regarding Tuesday’s ruling, Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, said it was “an incredible victory for families.”
“The Court has affirmed that the broadcast airwaves do indeed belong to the public, and not to the broadcasters who are granted a license to use the public airwaves for free,” Winter said.
“We agree with the Court that the FCC’s broadcast decency enforcement policy is ‘entirely rational,’” he added. “And we agree with the Court’s finding that the FCC was not ‘arbitrary’ or ‘capricious’ in its finding that those words were indecent on the public airwaves when children are in the audience.”
The PTC had filed FCC indecency complaints over the 2002 and 2003 incidents and had also submitted an Amicus brief in support of the FCC.
Also among those who backed the FCC was the National Religious Broadcasters, which argued that loose standards would hurt society.
"The welfare of America, its families and its youth will be detrimentally affected by electronic mass communications which contain unrestrained indecency, whether in language or imagery," the NRB stated in its brief.
Following Tuesday’s decision PTC’s president implored broadcast networks to abide by the court’s ruling and not air indecent material before 10 p.m., as required in their terms of license.
“We must put the well-being of children first and allow certain hours of the broadcast day to be a safe haven for families,” he added.
Notably, however, the high court has refused to pass judgment on whether the FCC’s "fleeting expletives" policy is in line with First Amendment guarantees of free speech, saying a federal appeals court should weigh the constitutionality of the policy.
“This Court ... is one of final review, ‘not of first view,’” it explained Tuesday.
“[W]hether it is unconstitutional, will be determined soon enough, perhaps in this very case,” it added.
The case is FCC v. Fox Television Stations.