Ordure in the Court, Part II

Elsewhere on this blog we have posted reports about the oral argument in FCC v. Fox, the first broadcast indecency case to reach the Supreme Court in 30 years. From our notes taken during the argument, we have mined the following nuggets:

  • Justice Ginsburg noted that there was “no rhyme or reason” in the FCC’s application of its indecency policy.
  • In a brief reference to the “scarcity rationale” which has historically been invoked to justify content regulation of broadcasting, one justice suggested that that rationale was not involved in the seminal Pacifica case (the 1978 Supreme Court decision which upheld the FCC’s first enforcement action under its then-new indecency policy). In response, Justice Stevens pointed out that scarcity was indeed a basis for Red Lion (the 1969 Supreme Court decision upholding the Fairness Doctrine), and Red Lion, in turn, was a basis for Pacifica. No one in the courtroom was in a position to argue with that statement, since Stevens unquestionably knows whereof he speaks: he was the author of the plurality opinion in Pacifica.
  • Speaking of the scarcity rationale, Justice Ginsburg pointed out that Pacifica arose “before the Internet”, an observation which suggests that she may believe that the explosion in available media sources over the last 10-15 years might undermine the scarcity rationale.
  • When asked by Ginsburg how the FCC determines what the “community standards” for indecency are, the Commission’s lawyer responded that the FCC applies its “collective experience”.
  • In a discussion of whether the “community” is more tolerant of certain words today than it was in 1978, Justice Scalia bemoaned the “coarsening of manners” which he apparently perceives around him – and which he apparently attributes, at least in part, to broadcast content – and indicated that the expletives under consideration are not used “in polite society”.
  • Justice Stevens, who got the indecency ball rolling with his opinion in Pacifica, asked whether the determination of whether or not a particular word or term is indecent is dependent on whether it is “hilarious” — a proposition which Justice Scalia re-stated (probably sarcastically) to ask whether bawdy jokes might be judged not indecent “if they’re really good”. Later, Stevens also inquired of the FCC’s lawyer whether the word “dung” is indecent. (Like any good lawyer, FCC counsel answered with a solid maybe.)