Burning Question

Time for the Supreme Court to allow swearing on TV?

Curse words and nudity are all over cable TV. Now the Supreme Court is debating whether networks should be able to follow suit

In a case that could spell big changes for TV viewers, the Supreme Court is considering whether the government should stop preventing television networks from airing curse words and nudity now that most Americans have unlimited access to adult material on cable TV and the internet. The broadcasters want the justices to throw out a 1978 decision upholding the Federal Communications Commission's authority to police the airwaves, saying the policy to set decency standards is outdated and confusing. Is it time to loosen up the rules?

The end of the censorship is long overdue: In 2012, Americans are watching shows like Californication and Mad Men, says the Los Angeles Times in an editorial, but the supporters of FCC censorship — including some conservative justices, judging by their questions in this case — are stuck in 1963, ready for an episode of Bonanza or Gunsmoke. "Everyone has cable these days, and if you want shows featuring sex and drugs and bad language," all you have to do is click the remote. Singling out broadcast TV is unfair.
"Bonanza is alive and well at the Supreme Court"

The argument the networks' owners make is flawed: The broadcast networks are currently a haven for parents who want to protect their kids from the obscenities of cable, says Parents Television Council President Tim Winter at USA Today, and "our children deserve [that] modicum of protection." Besides, Disney, NewsCorp., Comcast, and Viacom, the companies who own the networks — and who claim they can't compete with cable in the current environment — "also own nearly all of the cable channels they are supposedly forced to compete against."
"Kids need protection from broadcast indecency"

At the very least the court should make the rules clearer: "It's long been said that indecency is in the groin of the beholder," says Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post. That explains why sometimes networks get fined for shows that air the f-word — or reveal a bare buttocks, as a 2003 NYPD Blue episode cited in this court case did — while the FCC doesn't bat an eye over the broadcasting of a film full of salty talk, like Saving Private Ryan. If dirty words are never OK, the justices should say so. If they're OK, but only in a Spielberg film, they should say that, too.
"Supreme Court justices, bare buttocks, and the FCC"

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