It looks like the Supreme Court will uphold decency laws in broadcast television once again. The censorship rules which apply to broadcasts between 6 and 10 p.m. are being challenged on the grounds that the laws are vague and in violation of free speech, but as The Wall Street Journal reports, there’s no sign that the Supreme Court will bow to the pressure.
The FCC regulations were upheld by the Supreme Court back in 2009 and are expected to be upheld once again. Crackdowns in the past have come down on shows like NYPD Blue for showing a naked woman from behind for all of seven seconds as well as on the use of expletives on live awards programs. The laws apply only to broadcast television; the argument has been made – unsuccessfully so far – that the rules for cable networks and broadcast should not differ.
With cable stations drawing in more and more viewers to their original series over the years, it’s no wonder the broadcast networks are fighting for loosening of the laws once again. Premium networks like Showtime and HBO have been airing some of the most popular series on television and filling them with nudity and four letter words not allowed on broadcast television, adult audiences looking for something a little more risqué have plenty of options. Chief Justice John Roberts argues that with hundreds of cable channels offering that type of programming, those who wish to avoid it should be able to turn to broadcast networks where “they are not going to hear the S-word, the F-word. They are not going to see nudity.”
The vague nature of the laws and the seemingly random application of them is a big part of what has the networks crying foul. The use of an expletive or showing of nudity are acceptable under some circumstances while bringing down the FCC hammer in others. Seth Waxman, representing a number of networks, put it clearly:
"A regime in which government officials decide years after the fact that seven seconds of rear nudity in this particular episode of 'NYPD Blue' is indecent, but 40 seconds of nudity including full frontal nudity in 'Catch-22' is not; that expletives in a documentary about blues musicians is indecent, but even more of those expletives in a fictional movie about World War II is not, is constitutionally intolerable.”
The general sentiment among the justices seems to lend support to the FCC regulations. Although we can’t expect a final decision until July, it seems likely broadcasters will have to continue to toe the line.