The Supreme Court is slated to hear a case Tuesday on whether the government can enforce prohibitions against indecent speech on public television.
This is the first time in 30 years the Court is taking up the issue of "fleeting expletives." The ruling by the Justices could determine how often viewers will be exposed to profanity on public airwaves.
The Federal Communications Commissions contends it has the authority to ensure a certain of 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."
Broadcasters, however, say such regulations hamper their First Amendment rights.
Carter G. Phillips, attorney for Fox Television in the case, has said his clients want to be treated the same way as cable TV or the internet. The FCC has authority to regulate public airwaves, such as television and radio broadcasts, but not the internet, cable and satellite TV.
The National Religious Broadcasters and faith-based media watchdog groups have argued in friend-to-the-court briefs for FCC's case 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 states in the brief.
The Parents Television Council, which has 1.3 million members, has warned that unless the Supreme Court clamps down on expletives, public airwaves will not only have a greater frequency of profanity but more harsh language.
In a recent study, the PTC found that in 1998 the f-word aired only one time on primetime broadcast TV but in 2007 it appeared 1,147 times on primetime broadcast TV in 184 different programs.
"Our results show that when an expletive is introduced on television, usage of the word becomes commonplace in fairly short order. Then the broadcast networks feel the need to up the ante with even more offensive profanity. The result is that there is a significant increase in the overall use of profanity on the public airwaves, and an escalation in the offensiveness of the words used," explained PTC president Tim Winter in a news release.
The FCC did not usually penalize broadcasters for vulgar language on television and radio stations unless there were repeated offenses.
But a series of highly publicized incidents involving profanity during live television prompted the Commission to change its policy in March 2004.
First, there was Cher, who dropped an expletive during her live acceptance speech for the Billboard Music award in 2002. "People have been telling me I'm on the way out every year, right? So f***'em," said the singer on Fox TV.
A year later, a Fox broadcast of the Billboard Music Awards again aired profanity — this time two. During an appearance to promote "The Simple Life," Nicole Richie asked her co-star Paris Hilton, "Why do they even call it 'The Simple Life?' Have you ever tried to get cow s*** out of a Prada purse? It's not so f***ing simple."
The last straw for the FCC came when singer Bono uttered the phrase, "really, really, f***ing brilliant," in his acceptance speech at the 2003 Golden Globes awards show on NBC.
The new policy by FCC covered even "unscripted" expletives.
Last June, a federal appeals court in New York, by a 2-1 margin, ruled that Commission's new standard for defining decency was "arbitrary and capricious." The FCC appealed the ruling in the case that is now before the Supreme Court.
"If we can't restrict the use of the words '[F-word]' and '[S-word]' during prime time, Hollywood will be able to say anything they want, whenever they want," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin had said following the appeals court decision.
The case is expected to be followed closely by many broadcasters, viewers, and parents, all of whom will be directly affected by the outcome.
The case is FCC v. Fox Television Stations.