Supreme Court won't take up Janet Jackson 'wardrobe malfunction' case

The Supreme Court on Friday brought an end to the nearly decade-long legal battle over the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

The court declined to review a lower court's ruling that tossed out the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) $550,000 fine on CBS for broadcasting a split-second view of singer Janet Jackson's partially exposed breast during the show.


The FCC had concluded that the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" violated a federal law barring broadcasters from showing "indecent content" on the public airwaves. But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the fine, ruling that the punishment was "arbitrary and capricious."

That lower court ruled that the fine was an unexplained departure from the FCC's longstanding policy of excusing fleeting moments of indecency.

Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with the other justices not to hear the FCC's appeal of the ruling. But in a separate concurring opinion, he noted that the FCC's policy of excusing fleeting indecency applied to expletives, not nudity.

"As every schoolchild knows, a picture is worth a thousand words, and CBS broadcast this particular picture to millions of impressionable children," Roberts wrote.

But he decided the case wasn't worth bringing to the Supreme Court because the FCC has since overhauled its indecency policy and made clear that it applies to even fleeting expletives. 

He wrote that even if the 3rd Circuit's decision was wrong, "that error has been rendered moot going forward."

"Any future 'wardrobe malfunctions' will not be protected," Roberts wrote.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court tossed out the FCC's fines on ABS and Fox for broadcasting indecent content. Although broadcasters had hoped the court would rule that all indecency fines violate the First Amendment's free speech protections, the court overturned the fines on narrow procedural grounds.