SCOTUS to Hear Argument on Indecent Words

On Tuesday of this week, while the rest of the United States is going to the polls, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument in Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, et al.. (The docket # is 07-582 but the link generated by the U.S.S.C. site is currently giving a 404 error.) This case has its recent origins in the reaction to a few television broadcasts in which performers used profanity, particularly, variations on the word “fuck.” The F.C.C. had a rule permitting “fleeting expletives,” which rule was changed in 2003 to forbid any use of certain words before 10 p.m. It is essentially this rule that is under challenge in this case.

The Scotus Blog has an excellent summary of the background and the issues in this case. And the companion Scotus Wiki has all of the relevant documents online. According to Scotus Blog:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has denied a request to release promptly the audiotape of the argument. A written transcript will be available within about an hour after the argument concludes, and will be posted on this blog as soon as it is available.

Quite apart from any issue of freedom of speech or censorship, I find this case interesting because of the incongruities arising from what might be called meta-speech rules: “You can’t say the word ‘blotz’ (which word I just said).” Of course, law and its operations are felt to occupy a higher plane, perhaps, where forbidden words may be uttered without harm because of the superior nature of the people involved. This likely underlies the refusal to issue an audiotape as promptly as would be the case otherwise: those of us arguing and deciding are going to be just fine, but if a recording full of expletives gets put on YouTube, there’s no telling what amount of harm may be done to the rest of you.

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