A federal appeals court has tossed out a Federal Communications Commission policy that can lead to broadcasters being fined for allowing even a single curse word on live television.
The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan on Tuesday found the policy to be unconstitutionally vague. It says the policy violates the First Amendment.
In 2004, the FCC adopted a policy that profanity referring to sex or excrement is always indecent.
The court says the policy "chills speech, because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the FCC will find offensive."
"By prohibiting all 'patently offensive' references to sex, sexual organs and excretion without giving adequate guidance as to what 'patently offensive' means, the FCC effectively chills speech, because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the FCC will find offensive," the appeals court wrote.
"To place any discussion of these vast topics at the broadcaster's peril has the effect of promoting wide self-censorship of valuable material which should be completely protected under the First Amendment," it added.
The FCC policy was put in place after a January 2003 NBC broadcast of the Golden Globes awards show, in which U2 lead singer Bono uttered the phrase "f--- brilliant." The FCC said the F-word in any context "inherently has a sexual connotation" and can lead to enforcement.
Fox Television Stations, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., and other networks challenged the policy in 2006 after the FCC cited the use of profanity during awards programs that were aired in 2002 and 2003.