In six separate opinions totalling 68 pages, the justices signaled serious concerns about the constitutionality of the Federal Communications Commission's "fleeting expletives" policy, but called on a federal appeals court to weigh whether it violates First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
By a 5-4 vote, however, the court did throw out a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. That court had found in favor of a Fox Television-led challenge to the FCC policy and had returned the case to the agency for a "reasoned analysis" of its tougher line on indecency.
The commission appealed to the Supreme Court instead.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said the FCC policy, adopted in 2004, is "neither arbitrary nor capricious."
The FCC changed its long-standing policy after it concluded that a one-free-expletive rule did not make sense in the context of keeping the air waves free of indecency when children are likely to be watching television.
The precipitating events were live broadcasts of awards shows in which celebrities let slip or perhaps purposely said variations of the F-word and S-word.
Under the new FCC rule, some words are so offensive that they always evoke sexual or excretory images. So-called fleeting expletives were not treated as indecent before then.
In its last major broadcast indecency case, the court ruled 31 years ago that the FCC could keep curse words off the airwaves between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Justice Clarence Thomas sided with the majority Tuesday, but nevertheless noted that the previous decision and an even earlier case "were unconvincing when they were issued, and the passage of time has only increased doubt regarding their continued validity."
When the court upheld the FCC regulation in 1978, television broadcasts were the only source of images available to most Americans.
Today, the Internet, cable and satellite television are in millions of homes, yet the FCC's authority extends only to broadcast television and radio, as Thomas noted.
"For most consumers, traditional broadcast media programming is now bundled with cable or satellite services," he said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented Tuesday along with the other three liberal justices, similarly raised constitutional concerns. Ginsburg said that in a case that turns on government restriction of spoken words, "there is no way to hide the long shadow the First Amendment casts over what the commission has done."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
There is an incredible opportunity Tuesday night for film enthusiasts. Chosen from 300 film entries from around the world, 15 finalists in the "Migrant Voices Today" film challenge will be screened as part of the 26th annual San Diego Latino Film Festival.
'The Good Fight' star recently received the theater world's highest honor, and she'd like to dedicate it to her actor grandparents who also spent a lifetime on stage.
'The Act' star Patricia Arquette has a Robert Mueller devotional candle. No word on what it smells like.
'Better Things' star Pamela Adlon has two words for the physical changes we undergo as we age: so what?
'Game of Thrones' star Kit Harington isn't allowed to give any spoilers, but that doesn't mean Stephen isn't allowed to guess.
'Gloria Bell' star Julianne Moore explains why it's important to keep your kids on their toes, especially when out in public.