Appeals court tosses FCC’s indecency rule

The ruling details a 2004 change in the FCC’s policy after U2 band member Bono used an expletive upon receiving an award at the 2003 Golden Globes. The FCC responded by levying record fines against broadcasters for fleeting expletives uttered on live television. The court found that the threat of heavy fines for merely carrying live events where expletives occur amounts to de facto self-censorship for broadcasters in violation of the Constitution.

“We’re reviewing the court’s decision in light of our commitment to protect children, empower parents, and uphold the First Amendment,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski in a statement.

“If the FCC’s policy is allowed to remain in place, there will undoubtedly be countless other situations where broadcasters will exercise their editorial judgment and decline to pursue contentious people or subjects, or will eschew live programming altogether, in order to avoid the FCC’s fines,” states the ruling. “This chill reaches speech at the heart of the First Amendment.”

“The score for today’s game is First Amendment one, censorship zero,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, policy director at Media Access Project. “The next stop is the Supreme Court, and we’re confident that the Justices will affirm this decision.”

The broadcast industry, which joined together to file the original lawsuit, cheered the announcement. The Supreme Court upheld the policy last year on procedural grounds but did not address the constitutional arguments.

“We believe that responsible decision making by network and local station executives, coupled with program-blocking technologies like the V-chip, is far preferable to government regulation of program content,” said National Association of Broadcasters executive vice president Dennis Wharton.