12/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fox's FCC Fight For The F-Word Heads To Supreme Court

WASHINGTON -- When Cher invoked a four-letter expletive during her acceptance speech at a televised awards show, federal regulators deemed it indecent. So too when NYPD Blue detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) used dirty words.

Yet in the TV broadcast of the movie Saving Private Ryan, expletives were allowed because, regulators said, they contributed to the work's power and realism.

A U.S. appeals court took issue with such distinctions. It sided last year with Fox Television Stations, which aired the Cher outburst, and ruled against the Federal Communications Commission's new ban on "fleeting expletives." The court declared the FCC policy arbitrary and said the agency failed to justify its departure from a relatively relaxed earlier policy on the one-time use of expletives on TV.

The Supreme Court will hear the FCC's appeal of that ruling on Tuesday in one of the most closely watched cases of the term. The consequences for viewers could be significant. Fox, NBC and other broadcasters say the FCC policy has interfered with their free-speech rights and caused widespread self-censorship.

Fox lawyer Carter Phillips said the prospect of fines under the new policy could discourage network airing of live entertainment and sports broadcasts.

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