Critics say U.S. TV obscenity ruling out of touch

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Barbra Streisand made headlines when she said it three years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney caused a stir in 2004 when he uttered the word to a senator but TV mobster Tony Soprano used it constantly.

Yet even a fleeting use of the “F-word” or the “S-word” on U.S. network television remains subject to fines under a Supreme Court split ruling on Tuesday that parent groups hailed but critics said was out of touch with ordinary Americans.

“What’s the point of continuing to apply a censorship regime to one of the oldest mediums -- broadcast TV and radio -- when kids are flocking to unregulated mediums in large numbers?,” said Adam Thierer, a senior fellow with the Progress and Freedom Foundation think-tank on the digital revolution.

In its first ruling on broadcast indecency standards in more than 30 years, the Supreme Court upheld a U.S. government policy that subjects television network broadcasters to fines if they air a single expletive on the airwaves before 10 p.m.

The Fox television network said it would pursue the case in the lower courts on constitutional free speech grounds.

Parent groups welcomed the decision. The conservative Parents Television Council said it was “an incredible victory for families” that ensured the well-being of children.

The American Centre for Law and Justice, which represented 18 congressional representatives in the case, said the Supreme Court had rightly upheld the FCC’s authority “to protect America’s families, especially children.”


The ruling does not cover satellite or cable TV channels like MTV and HBO (home to “The Sopranos), and puts network TV at odds with an era when Americans can find just about anything on the Internet and video-sharing Web sites like YouTube.

Moreover, U.S. laws on obscenity on the airwaves are generally much stricter than in the other Western nations. In Britain, a self-policing policy means network including the BBC avoid airing profanities before 9 p.m. but after that time they have become more commonplace in the last 10 years.

Australian courts ruled in the 1990s that coarse language was no longer offensive and TV shows that include profanities are often broadcast without being bleeped out.

Ohio State University Law Professor Christopher Fairman, who is writing a book called “Fuck” on the use of taboo language in modern culture, said the word had lost its sexual connotations and had become merely another expletive.

He said the 5-4 decision showed “just how out of touch (the court’s majority) are with the lives of ordinary Americans.”

According to a 2006 opinion poll, 64 percent of Americans questioned said they use the F-word ranging from several times a day (8 percent) to a few times a year (15 percent).

“Tom Hanks can say it in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’, the British fashion store French Connection UK can use it as a logo (FCUK) that is essentially the F-bomb.

“But on network TV, Bono can’t say it and Cher can’t say it, but I can wear it on the back of my jacket saying ‘Fuck the Draft’ and the court says that’s OK. It doesn’t seem to make sense,” Fairman told Reuters.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens noted the discrepancy between the Federal Communications Commission crackdown on profanity and the plethora of TV commercials for products treating impotence or constipation.

Thierer said the decision upheld regulations from “a bygone era” and made less sense given tools like the V-chip, available to parents to control their children’s access to TV programs.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman