WASHINGTON, January 11, 2012 ( – The U.S. Supreme Court’s justices broadly expressed skepticism over a petition to relax broadcast decency standards in oral arguments heard today.

“All we are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where you can say, ‘I’m not going to … hear the “S” word, the “F” word.’ They are not going to see nudity,” Chief Justice John Roberts remarked.


Noting that the airways are “public,” Justice Antonin Scalia added that “the government is entitled to insist upon a certain modicum of decency. I’m not sure it even has to relate to juveniles, to tell you the truth.”

Fox is asking for the indecency restrictions that govern broadcasting to be dropped completely due to the general availability of cable and satellite television, which is free from the same restraints. It is joined by ABC. Fox has been hit with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fines in recent years for allowing prohibited curse words in broadcasts, and ABC was fined for a scene containing partial nudity.

However, the Supreme Court justices seemed to reject the arguments made by the broadcasters, including the claim that the standards are “arbitrary” because they were not enforced for such broadcasts as the World War II film “Saving Private Ryan,” which included cursing.

“People understand that context counts,” Roberts told one lawyer. “Your argument is that they can’t take context into account.”

Although ultraliberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kegan expressed some sympathy for the position held by the broadcasters, even Kegan conceded that “It seems to be a good thing to have a safe haven” for prime-time TV.

When Anthony Kennedy asked if the “inevitable consequence” would be “that every celebrity or want-to-be celebrity that is interviewed can feel free to use one of these words,” he was assured that Fox could “bleep” out the words. He also claimed that Fox has internal guidelines for such matters.


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