Muddy Rules

When can you curse on TV?

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In a rare move away from stricter regulation of on-air speech, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has reaffirmed the right to swear during a newscast. After the four major TV networks filed suit against the commission, arguing that several recent rulings were "unconstitutional and inconsistent with two decades of previous FCC decisions," the commission reversed an order issued in March 2006: The word bullshitter, uttered in an interview on CBS's The Early Show, is now "neither indecent nor profane" because "it occurred during news programming." In their original ruling, by contrast, the regulators argued that the word was disturbing "particularly during a morning news interview."

In addition to clarifying when cussing is allowed, the reversal seems to establish an agreeably broad definition of news: The interviewee who used the formerly forbidden word was not Dick Cheney or Tony Blair, but a contestant from the reality TV show Survivor Vanuatu.

First Amendment fans shouldn't get too excited, though. The FCC upheld two other rulings being challenged in the suit, and it reversed the fourth only on a technicality. It also insists, despite its decision, that "there is no outright news exemption from our indecency rules." One commissioner, Democrat Jonathan Adelstein, suggested in a dissent that the outcome was aimed less at protecting speech than at shoring up the government's position before the networks' suit goes to trial. "Litigation strategy," he wrote, "should not be the dominant factor guiding policy when First Amendment protections are at stake."

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