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After Supreme Court ruling, FCC must give clear indecency standards

A Supreme Court ruling on FCC indecency rules for broadcast TV calls for less vague standards but seems to back the public interest in safeguarding children from vulgarities and nudity on public airwaves. Now the FCC must provide clarity for such rules.

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The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the FCC indecency standards are too vague for broadcasters to follow. The ruling nonetheless seemed to uphold the Federal Communications Commission's ability to regulate indecency in broadcast TV and radio.

Alex Brandon/AP Photo

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In a ruling Thursday, the US Supreme Court took the wise step of affirming the federal government’s ability to regulate indecency in the public airwaves. But to protect free speech, the justices also insisted that TV broadcasters deserve “fair notice” on what is considered indecent.

The 8-to-0 decision overturns hefty fines imposed on Fox and ABC for their airing of “fleeting expletives” and momentary nudity during broadcasts a decade ago. And it pushes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to now come up with new – and less vague – standards.

Those new rules need to satisfy a public interest in safeguarding children in the home while also meeting a constitutional requirement to provide enough clarity so that broadcasters don’t censor themselves simply out of fear.

This is a fine line to walk. Broadcast TV (and radio) are regulated because the airwaves are a scarce resource, limited by the amount of frequencies. And the high court has allowed FCC limits on free speech because parents still need help – despite the V-chip and other technology – in protecting children from the emotional shock of vulgarities on broadcast TV during normal viewing hours.

Commercial media have plenty of other, nonregulated outlets, such as cable and the Internet, if they insist on airing edgy material. TV broadcasting is still uniquely accessible to children and still a popular medium in the home. Swearwords are generally offensive because many of them only serve as a reminder of base bodily functions or depraved activities – or those kind of things best left to parents to decide on what a child can bear.

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