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FCC's obscenity rule to get Supreme Court's ear

The tribunal agrees to take a case about the commission's crackdown on stations that air expletives.

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A government effort to enforce stricter standards against the use of indecent language in television and radio broadcasts has set the stage for a First Amendment showdown at the US Supreme Court.

The high court agreed Monday to enter a dispute between broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over whether TV and radio stations can be punished for the occasional, accidental use of offensive language in broadcasts. The precise legal term for such bloopers is "fleeting expletives."

At issue is a recent FCC crackdown against offensive language on the public airwaves. At the urging of broadcast corporations, a federal appeals court in New York struck down the FCC's tough new policy in June 2007.

The commission asked the high court to uphold the policy. The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case in its next term, which begins in October.

The case is about more than four-letter words. It addresses a concern among some observers about a coarsening of American culture via greater use of crude and offensive language on television and radio. At the same time, it raises fundamental questions about the nation's commitment to the First Amendment principle of free speech.

In the 1970s, comedian George Carlin made light of this difficult business in a classic 12-minute performance reciting the seven words you can't say on TV or radio. He repeated the words over and over, while exploring with his audience variations and combinations of those same forbidden utterances. The bit drew laughter and applause, but according to the US Supreme Court the monologue was offensive enough to justify a crackdown by the FCC.

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