A federal appeals court struck down the Federal Communications Commission's indecency policy Tuesday, calling it "unconstitutionally vague" and a violation of the First Amendment.
The ruling is a big victory for broadcast networks, which challenged the policy in 2006 after the FCC said unscripted expletives said on live broadcasts violated indecency rules and were subject to fines.
The three-judge panel of the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that the policy could create a "chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here."
FCC and Fox case goes to court
"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 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."
The court added that the FCC might be able to create a new, constitutional policy.
"We're reviewing the court's decision in light of our commitment to protect children, empower parents, and uphold the First Amendment," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.
The FCC implemented tougher guidelines after Cher, Nicole Richie and Bono uttered expletives that were not bleeped during live award shows on Fox and NBC between 2002 and 2003.
"While we will continue to strive to eliminate expletives from live broadcasts, the inherent challenges broadcasters face with live television, coupled with the human element required for monitoring, must allow for the unfortunate isolated instances where inappropriate language slips through," Fox said in a statement Tuesday to Reuters.