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Cher at the Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2002. Her acceptance speech ignited controversy because of her use of the 'F-word' on broadcast television. "I've also had critics for the last 40 years saying that I was on my way out every year. So f- - - 'em," said the singer.
Obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, but when it comes to what is considered “indecent,” things get a lot more gray. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled to create a “safe space” from indecency on daytime broadcast television (prompted by comedian George Carlin’s famous string of expletives.)
Since then, what’s considered indecent and what should remain protected as free speech has been repeatedly squabbled over.
The names of those involved in the latest case show the issue's age: Fox and ABC television stations sued over FCC fines for “fleeting use of expletives” by Cher and Nicole Ritchie at the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards, as well as a view of NYPD actress’ Charlotte Ross buttocks.
Today's Supreme Court’s ruling is surprising because it does not pick up any First Amendment issues, but rather holds that Fox and ABC should not be held accountable in the three specific circumstances.
Are there more First Amendment cases involving broadcast television in the wings, or is this ruling an indication that the court considers this a non-issue?
Greg Stohr, Bloomberg's Supreme Court reporter
Linda Greenhouse, Knight distinguished journalist in Residence and Joseph M. Goldstein senior fellow at Yale Law School; former New York Times reporter