The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday threw out a $1.4 million indecency fine levied against ABC for airing an episode of NYPD Blue that contained female nudity.
The court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission had relied on an “unconstitutionally vague” indecency policy for determining obscenity. At issue was the Feb. 25, 2003, episode of NYPD Blue, which featured glimpses of actress Charlotte Ross’ exposed backside. Having been surprised as she emerged from the shower, Ross’ character also covered her breasts with her crossed arms.
The FCC originally fined 52 ABC affiliates for airing the episode, but the network appealed the punitive charges after the court struck down the commission’s poorly defined indecency policy last July. “We now hold that the FCC’s policy violates the First Amendment, because it is unconstitutionally vague, creating a chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here,” the court wrote in its summary judgment.
In invalidating the FCC’s obscenity policy, the court let Fox off the hook for its broadcast of the 2003 Golden Globes, in which an exuberant Bono declared the Irish rock band U2’s win “fucking brilliant.” The FCC is appealing the fleeting expletive decision, arguing that it will prevent it from enforcing restrictions on profanity or nudity.
The NYPD ruling was applauded by TV Watch, a coalition of broadcasters (including NBC Universal, CBS and Fox) and public-interest groups that promote the use of content ratings and parental controls to prevent children from accessing adult content, rather than government intervention.
“Today’s decision by the court is further evidence that the highest authority on family television viewing is parents and not the government,” said TV Watch executive director Jim Dyke. “Eighty-seven percent of parents agree according to our research.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the Parents Television Council savaged the court’s ruling, saying the decision was “devoid of common sense.”
“Once again the Second Circuit has proclaimed that it knows better than the Supreme Court, the Congress, the FCC and the overwhelming majority of the American people,” said PTC president Tim Winter. “The [circuit] court is clearly on a quest to do everything in its power to impede the law––even if the judges’ rationale today conflicts with their prior reasoning for overturning FCC sanctions.”