Analysis: Ruling Drives Indecency Debate

The Associated Press
Wednesday, June 6, 2007; 5:38 PM

WASHINGTON -- Back in January of 2003, upon learning that his band had won the Golden Globe for best original song, U-2 lead singer Bono cut loose with an exuberantly enunciated expletive _ a word not normally heard on broadcast television.

The singer's outburst at the televised awards show was the starting point of a long-running battle over whether profanity should be permitted to air on broadcast stations, and if so, under what circumstances.

Four-plus years later, the issue is far from being resolved.

On Monday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York rejected by a 2-1 vote the Federal Communications Commission's policy on how it polices indecent speech on the airwaves.

As the government ponders its legal options, the FCC is stuck, unwilling to act on an unending stream of complaints it receives from the viewing and listening public until the legal issues are resolved. In fact, the FCC hasn't proposed a new fine for indecency since March of 2006.

Among those options: a direct appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, an action urged by the chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the FCC.

So what does Bono have to do with this? The singer expressed his mood during the awards show by saying "this is really, really f-----g brilliant."

His remark led to a number of complaints at the FCC. But the agency's Media Bureau decided that the utterance was not indecent because the singer was "not describing sexual or excretory activities."

He was instead using the word as an "adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation." The agency said in the past, it found that "fleeting and isolated remarks of this nature do not warrant commission action."

The decision received a considerable amount of attention, none of it flattering. Some thought it absurd that the government would countenance use of the F-word as long as it's an adjective.

In March 2004, the agency reversed course, saying that word in any context "inherently has a sexual connotation."

The court in New York was not reviewing the Bono case, but two airings of the "Billboard Music Awards," in which expletives were broadcast over the airwaves that were also declared indecent by the FCC.

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