An appeal over singer Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and brief partial nudity on national television has reached the Supreme Court, the latest free speech episode over indecent, if fleeting, images and words on the public airwaves.
The Obama administration has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether record government fines against CBS should be allowed to stand.
A federal appeals court last November ruled for the network and its affiliates, saying the Federal Communications Commission’s sanctions were improper. The agency had punished the network with a $550,000 fine after the pop singer’s breast was briefly exposed during a live halftime show with fellow entertainer Justin Timberlake at the 2004 Super Bowl.
The Supreme Court is currently deciding a separate but related issue over whether FCC enforcement policies violate the free speech rights of broadcasters airing profanity and sexual content, both in live and scripted form.
The Justice Department in its appeal over the Janet Jackson incident told the high court there is no “fleeting images exemption from indecency enforcement” and that the singer’s act was “shocking and pandering,” airing “during a prime-time broadcast of a sporting event that was marketed as family entertainment and contained no warning that it would include nudity.”
But CBS countered that the government in recent decades has applied inconsistent rules to indecent words and images, punishing some instances and ignoring others.
The three-judge Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed, finding for a second time the FCC had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously,” since the commission did not give the media companies proper prior warning about subsequent changes in its enforcement policies.
“The balance of the evidence weighs heavily against the FCC’s contention that its restrained enforcement policy for fleeting material extended only to fleeting words and not to fleeting images,” wrote Judge Marjorie Rendell for the 2-1 majority. She said the agency rules changed suddenly, a month after the Jackson incident in Houston.
“An agency may not apply a policy to penalize conduct that occurred before the policy was announced,” said the judge.
CBS now has a month to formally reply in writing to the high court, It is expected to urge the justices to stay out of the case. The high court would not decide whether to accept the appeal for review until June or perhaps later this fall. If placed on the docket, oral arguments and a ruling would not likely happen until sometime next year.
After viewer complaints and national media attention, the FCC said the Jackson incident was obscene. In addition to CBS Inc., 20 of its affiliates also were fined.
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Article courtesy cnn.com