(WASHINGTON) — The Supreme Court on Thursday set aside the Federal Communications Commission’s standards on indecency, ruling in favor of broadcasters who had complained the standards were unconstitutionally vague.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a unanimous court said, “The Commission failed to give Fox or ABC fair notice prior to the broadcasts in question that fleeting expletives and momentary nudity could be found actionably indecent.”
The case stems from celebrities-such as Cher and Nicole Richie uttering swear words during live television in primetime, as well as an episode of ABC’s show NYPD Blue that depicted partial nudity.
The FCC — charged with regulating the public airwaves — found that the incidents violated its prohibitions against the broadcast of indecent material before 10 p.m.
But lawyers for broadcasters including Fox Television and ABC, Inc., argued that the FCC’s policy is unconstitutionally vague and chills free speech. Facing daunting fines, the broadcasters argued that the government should no longer treat broadcast speech more restrictively than other media when it comes to the regulation of indecency over the airwaves.
Although the broadcasters had also argued the standards violated the First Amendment, Justice Kennedy did not address the claim.
“Because the Court, resolves these cases on fair notice grounds under the Due Process Clause, it need not address the First Amendment implications of the Commissions indecency policy,” he said.
Kennedy said that Thursday’s opinion “leaves the Commission free to modify its current indecency policy in light of its determination of the public interest and applicable legal requirements.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was recused from Thursday’s decision because she dealt with the issue at the lower court.
Anticipated court rulings on the president’s health reform law and an Arizona immigration policy were held off until at least next week.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Tal Kopan, John Berman and Sunlen Serfaty, CNN Newswire
Stephen Collinson, CNN