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Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, Inc.

United States Supreme Court
556 U.S. 502 (2009)


Congress granted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (plaintiff) power to revoke a television broadcaster's license for violating FCC broadcast regulations. One regulation prohibited indecent broadcasts, defined as including the use of offensive terms relating to bodily functions. The FCC's original enforcement policy distinguished between the repetitive, literal use of an offensive term to describe a bodily function and the spontaneous, nonliteral use of the term to convey emotion. The policy treated the nonliteral use more leniently. Fox Television Stations, Inc. (Fox) (defendant), broadcast several programs containing the spontaneous, nonliteral use of offensive terms. Soon after, the FCC abandoned its original enforcement policy in favor of a new policy that enabled it to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Fox. The FCC's explanation for its policy change cited (1) the constraints the original policy placed on FCC enforcement efforts; (2) recent court cases that implicitly removed any legal basis for distinguishing literal from nonliteral uses of offensive terms; and (3) new "bleeping" technology that enabled broadcasters to censor the offensive term. The FCC applied the new policy to find that Fox had violated the indecency regulation. Fox appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The court held that the FCC failed to show why its new enforcement policy was preferable to the original policy and reversed the FCC's ruling. The FCC appealed, and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (Scalia, J.)

Concurrence (Kennedy, J.)

Concurrence (Thomas, J.)

Dissent (Breyer, J.)

Dissent (Ginsburg, J.)

Dissent (Stevens, J.)

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