High court prepares for foul language case

The Supreme Court would not be recommended as the best place in town to hear a raucous conversation that makes full use of assorted vulgarities.

Tuesday morning could be an exception. While the nation focuses its eyes and ears on the presidential election, the justices will spend time talking about such words in a case that could determine whether they will be heard more often on television and radio.

The nation's broadcasters are fighting fines imposed by the Federal Communications Commission for airing the banned words, even if inadvertently. For example, when Cher won a Billboard Music Award in 2002, she said it proved her critics wrong. “People have been telling me I'm on the way out every year, right? So ---- 'em,” she said.

The lawyer for Fox TV, which broadcast live the Billboard program, said he plans to use the actual words that federal regulators hope to keep off the air. “Unless someone tells me not to, I will use the words (that set off the legal fight),” lawyer Carter Phillips said.

But the case is much more than a swearing contest. The stakes are high — for broadcasters, for viewers and for parents. At issue is the future indecency standard for television and radio. Will these broadcasts remain under strict federal regulation because a mass audience of children and families might be watching, or will a looser, free-speech standard give broadcasters as well as their audiences more choice in what they see and hear?

The broadcasters say the old rules are an unconstitutional infringement on free speech, impractical in a world of cable and satellite TV. This year, about nine in 10 Americans receive TV signals from a cable or satellite, yet only the broadcast industry remains under the rules set when nearly all homes depended on the public airwaves for TV and radio.

Broadcasters also say federal policing and the prospect of high fines for airing banned words poses an everyday threat. “I don't want to say all live sporting events or all live broadcasts will come to a halt, but what happens if an expletive gets on the air? They (FCC) can impose a huge fine on the network and on all the local stations that broadcast it,” Phillips said.

But parents' groups say children and families should be shielded from profanity and sex on television. Maintaining a standard of decency is a small price to pay for the use of the public airwaves, they say.

“They are using the public airwaves for free. We don't think we should have to tolerate a race to the bottom to see who can go further,” said Timothy F. Winter, president of the Parents Television Council in Los Angeles.

Four years ago, in response to complaints from the parents' groups, the FCC announced a crackdown on the broadcast of expletives that described “sexual or excretory” activities. The commission said these words were always shocking and graphic, even if used fleetingly, and any broadcast of them could subject the network to fines of more than $325,000.