Court knocks down FCC’s fine for Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”

It’s the wardrobe malfunction that never seems to go out of style.

A federal appeals court Wednesday ruled against the Federal Communications Commission, saying the agency improperly fined CBS for airing the notorious moment during singers Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s halftime performance at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004.

It was the second time the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia has ruled against the FCC over the episode. In 2008, the court knocked down the fine, triggering a long legal battle that has tested the agency’s ability to policy the airwaves for indecency.

This time, a three-judge panel said the FCC “acted arbitrarily” by imposing a $550,000 fine on CBS because it didn’t make clear its intolerance for brief nudity. The court had taken on the case again after the Supreme Court in 2009 upheld the FCC’s decision.

Jackson’s right breast was exposed for nine-sixteenths of a second, the court noted.

But advocates of greater indecency enforcement said the court’s decision ignored the multitude of protests by families.

“Today’s ruling reaches the level of judicial stupidity and is a sucker-punch to families everywhere,” said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council.

In the wake of the decision, the FCC’s ability to police the airwaves remains unclear. In January, the Supreme Court will review the agency’s enforcement of fleeting curse words and images, which include nudity.

On Wednesday, the Philadelphia court ruled that the FCC had the authority to ban fleeting expletives and indecent images on TV. But it said the agency’s standard for nudity appeared to change after its enforcement of the now famous flashing.

The FCC said it was pleased that the court reaffirmed its ability to police broadcasting for indecency. But it said it was disappointed in the decision.

“The FCC will continue to use all of the authority at its disposal to ensure that the nation’s broadcasters fulfill the public interest responsibilities that accompany their use of the public airwaves,” a FCC spokesman said.

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Cecilia Kang is a senior technology correspondent for The Washington Post.

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