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Are tough FCC indecency laws obsolete? Supreme Court hears free-speech case.

Fox and ABC say tougher FCC regulations of broadcasters regarding expletives and partial nudity are discriminatory in an age when cable and Internet programs are not similarly regulated.

Paris Hilton (l.) is partially responsible for the FCC's tough rules on expletives.

Shea Walsh/AP

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The US Supreme Court is set to hear oral argument on Tuesday in a case that examines whether tougher indecency standards enforced against broadcast television companies in recent years violate free speech protections of the First Amendment.

The Obama administration is supporting the stricter standards and urging the justices to reverse a lower court ruling that declared the Federal Communications Commission regulations unconstitutional.

The tougher regulations subjected broadcast companies to substantial fines for the use of an isolated expletive or partial nudity during prime time programming.

For decades, the FCC had embraced a more lax enforcement posture, allowing the occasional four-letter “blooper” without subjecting broadcast companies to enforcement actions.

That changed in 2004, when the FCC shifted course and beefed up its policy on foul language and nudity on broadcast television.

Broadcasters are objecting to the policy change, claiming it is so ill-defined that it denies companies fair notice of what is banned. They also argue that such government censorship violates the free speech protections of the First Amendment.

Fox Television Stations and ABC are asking the Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s decision and declare that the FCC’s regulatory regime is unconstitutional.

At issue is the extent to which broadcast television viewers will encounter coarse language and brief nudity on their television screens during prime time programming.

The FCC has sought to crack down on what it viewed as an increasingly permissive broadcast environment that failed to adequately self-police the use of four-letter words and risqué images.


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