WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Tuesday that TV viewers should not be hit with the "F-word" or the "S-word" during prime time broadcasts, upholding the government's power to fine broadcasters for airing a single expletive.
In a 5-4 decision, the justices said federal law has long prohibited the broadcast of "indecent" language, and they said the Federal Communications Commission had ample authority to crack down on what Justice Antonin Scalia called the "foul-mouthed glitteratae from Hollywood."
He was referring to incidents involving Cher, Nicole Richie and Bono that triggered the FCC's crackdown.
In its new policy, the FCC said a single "fleeting expletive" could trigger fines for the network and all the local broadcasters who aired the show.
Fox and the other networks went to court, arguing that this change in policy was unjustified and unwarranted.
But the Supreme Court upheld the new policy Tuesday in FCC vs. Fox Television and confirmed that the government retains broad power to police the airwaves.
"The commission could reasonably conclude that the pervasiveness of foul language, and the coarsening of public entertainment in other media such as cable, justify more stringent regulation of broadcast programs so as to give conscientious parents a relatively safe haven for their children," Scalia said.
Although the ruling is a defeat for broadcasters, they can urge the FCC to revise its policy, now that President Barack Obama is appointing new commissioners. They also could urge Congress to revise the applicable law. The court also said the broadcasters can go back to the federal appeals court in New York and argue that the policy violates the First Amendment.
The broadcasters had argued that they should not be subject to rigid government rules on indecency, considering that most Americans watch TV on cable and satellite systems that can escape regulation.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito joined Scalia's opinion.
The four dissenters said the FCC had not explained how a "single fleeting use" of an expletive could justify large fines, particularly if a network had no intention to air the language.