In its first ruling on TV and profanity in three decades, the Supreme Court Tuesday gave the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the authority to fine broadcasters for one-time utterances of "indecent" language.

The ruling targets time periods when children are "likely to be watching," which had traditionally included all of prime time except the last hour. That language is sure to be debated.

But in the current harsh economic climate, what network or local station manager would run the risk of a huge government fine over profanity? You have to wonder what this will mean in terms of the networks' ability to create and air adult drama and comedy.

Tuesday's ruling grows out of an appeal by the major networks challenging the FCC's authority for imposing fines for one-time utterances of profanity -- often referred to as "feeling expletive."

"It suffices the new policy is permissible under the statute, there are good reasons for it..." Justice Antonin Scalia said, writing for the conservative majority responsible for the 5-4 ruling Tuesday.


The court declined to decide whether the FCC policy violates the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. That's a major distinction.  The justices Tuesday called for the free-speech aspect to be reviewed again by a federal appeals court. But, of course, the free speech of the broadcasters will already be altered by the ruling.

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are the four networks involved in the case. A federal appeals court had previously ruled in favor of their appeal of the FCC policy, labeling the FCC's policy "arbitrary and capricious."

The FCC then took the case to the Supreme Court, seeking to reclaim what it saw as its inherent ability to fine the networks airing "indecent" speech, even if an "indecent" word is broadcast only one time.

Fines leveled in the wake of utterances by Bono, Cher and Nicole Richie at televised awards shows in 2002 and 2003, as well as dialogue in the defunct ABC cop drama, NYPD Blue, led to the controversy.

(AFP/Getty Images file photo of the Supreme Court building in Washington by Shawn Thew)