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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Broadcast censorship

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates "indecent" free-to-air broadcasting (both television and radio). Satellite, cable television, and Internet outlets are not subject to content-based FCC regulation. It can issue fines if, for example, the broadcaster employs certain profane words. The Supreme Court in 1978 in F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation upheld the commission’s determination that George Carlin’s classic “seven dirty words” monologue, with its deliberate, repetitive and creative use of vulgarities, was indecent. But the court at that time left open the question of whether the use of “an occasional expletive” could be punished. Radio personality Howard Stern has been a frequent target of fines. This led to his leaving broadcast radio and signing on with Sirius Satellite Radio in 2006. The Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show controversy increased the political pressure on the FCC to vigorously police the airwaves. In addition, Congress increased the maximum fine the FCC may levy from US $268,500 to US $375,000 per incident.

The Supreme Court, in its 5-4 decision in Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, No. 07-582, on April 28, 2009, said it did not find the FCC's policy on so-called fleeting expletives either "arbitrary or capricious", thus dealing a blow to the networks in their efforts to scuttle the policy. But the case brought by Fox to the high court was a narrow challenge on procedural grounds to the manner in which the FCC handled its decision to toughen up its policy on fleeting expletives. Fox, with the support of ABC, CBS and NBC, argued that the commission did not give enough notice of nor properly explain the reasons for clamping down on fleeting expletives after declining to issue penalties for them in decades past. The issue first arose in 2004, when the FCC sanctioned, but did not fine, NBC for Bono's use of the phrase "fucking brilliant" during the Golden Globes telecast. The present case arose from two appearances by celebrities on the Billboard Music Awards. The first involved Cher, who reflected on her career in accepting an award in 2002: “I’ve also had critics for the last forty years saying I was on my way out every year. Right. So fuck em.” The second passage came in an exchange between Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in 2003 in which Ms. Richie discussed the difficulties involved in cleaning cow shit off a Prada purse.

The majority decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, reversed the lower appellate court's decision that the FCC's move was "arbitrary and capricious." “The commission could reasonably conclude” he wrote “that the pervasiveness of foul language, and the coarsening of public entertainment in other media such as cable, justify more stringent regulation of broadcast programs so as to give conscientious parents a relatively safe haven for their children.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting, wrote that “there is no way to hide the long shadow the First Amendment casts over what the commission has done. Today’s decision does nothing to diminish that shadow.” Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting, wrote that not every use of a swear word connoted the same thing: “As any golfer who has watched his partner shank a short approach knows,” Justice Stevens wrote, “it would be absurd to accept the suggestion that the resultant four-letter word uttered on the golf course describes sex or excrement and is therefore indecent... It is ironic, to say the least, that while the FCC patrols the airwaves for words that have a tenuous relationship with sex or excrement, commercials broadcast during prime-time hours frequently ask viewers whether they are battling erectile dysfunction or are having trouble going to the bathroom... The FCC’s shifting and impermissibly vague indecency policy only imperils these broadcasters and muddles the regulatory landscape.” For 30 years, the FCC has had the power to keep “indecent” material off the airwaves from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and those rules “have not proved unworkable” Stevens added. Justice Breyer, dissenting, wrote that the law “grants those in charge of independent administrative agencies broad authority to determine relevant policy,” he observed. “But it does not permit them to make policy choices for purely political reasons nor to rest them primarily upon unexplained policy preferences.”Scalia’s majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. and (for the most part) by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Souter, and Breyer dissented. Four justices wrote concurrences or dissents speaking only for themselves.

But the decision was limited to a narrow procedural issue and also sent the case back to the 2nd Court of Appeals in New York to directly address the constitutionality of the FCC's policy. The 2nd Court of Appeals is already on record in its 2007 ruling that it was "skeptical" that the policy could "pass constitutional muster." Scalia said that the looming First Amendment question “will be determined soon enough, perhaps in this very case.” The decision provided hints that the court might approach the constitutional question differently. Some dissenting justices and Justice Clarence Thomas, who was in the majority, indicated that they might be receptive to a First Amendment challenge. Thomas, in a concurrence, said he was “open to reconsideration” of the two cases that gave television broadcasters far less First Amendment protection than books, newspapers, cable programs and Web sites have.

The FCC is also responsible for permitting transmitters, to prevent interference between stations from obscuring each others' signals. Denial of the right to transmit could be considered censorship. Restrictions on low-power broadcasting stations have been particularly controversial, and the subject of legislation in the 1990s and 2000s (decade).
The Guardian reported U.S. censorship of U.S. media regarding a CIA employee implicated in murder in that "A number of US media outlets learned about Davis's CIA role but have kept it under wraps at the request of the Obama administration."Colorado station KUSA censored an online report indicating Davis worked for the CIA when the station "removed the CIA reference from its website at the request of the US government.

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