US judges overturn TV nudity and swearing fines

Bono Bono swore during the Golden Globes award ceremony

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US broadcasters who broke the rules on swearing and nudity should not be penalised, the US Supreme Court has ruled.

Several broadcasters were issued with fines totalling some $1.24m (£800,000) for breaching decency standards.

Swearing uttered by celebrities on awards shows, and a brief glimpse of a woman's buttock during an episode of NYPD Blue were deemed inappropriate.

But judges overturned the fines and said that policies should be revised.

Television networks Fox and ABC had challenged fines issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

They argued that the commission's use of penalties was inconsistent.

'One free expletive'

For years the FCC did not take action against broadcasters for one-off incidents of swearing, or for brief nudity.

But the FCC toughened its stance following several incidents in 2002 and 2003.

They include:

  • Singer Cher's use of the F word during the Billboard Music Awards show
  • U2 lead singer Bono's use of the same word during the Golden Globes
  • Reality show star Nicole Richie's use of two expletives during the Billboard awards show
  • A seven-second shot of a woman's buttock on a 2003 episode of NYPD Blue

The FCC concluded that its "one-free-expletive" rule had not kept the airwaves free of indecency when children were likely to be watching.

Lawyers for Fox and ABC argued that the FCC had allowed broadcasters to air profanities in the movie Saving Private Ryan and nudity in Schindler's List.

They also said that the arrival of satellite, internet and cable TV had rendered the regulations, that only apply to broadcast channels, obsolete.

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court judges declared that the FCC had not given broadcasters fair warning of a change in its stance.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said the commission did not adequately explain that "a fleeting expletive or a brief shot of nudity could be actionably indecent".

The crackdown on indecency came in part after Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show.

That incident is still being considered by the courts.

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