On November 4th, 2008, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the potentially historic free speech case of Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. This case, which originated in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, deals with the FCC's new policy for "fleeting expletives" on broadcast television. The FCC lost and appealed to the Supreme Court. By contrast, the so-called "Janet Jackson case" -- CBS v. FCC -- was heard in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The FCC also lost that case and has also petitioned the Supreme Court to review the lower court's ruling.
These two cases reflect an old and odd tension in American media policy and First Amendment jurisprudence. Words and images presented over one medium-in this case broadcast television-are regulated differently than when transmitted through any other media platform (such as newspapers, cable TV, DVDs, or the Internet). Various rationales have been put forward in support of this asymmetrical regulatory standard. Those rationales have always been weak, however. Worse yet, they have opened the door to an array of other regulatory shenanigans, such as the so-called Fairness Doctrine, and many other media marketplace restrictions.
Whatever sense this arrangement made in the past, technological and marketplace developments are now calling into question the wisdom and efficacy of the traditional broadcast industry regulatory paradigm. This article will explore both the old and new rationales for differential First Amendment treatment of broadcast television and radio operators and conclude that those rationales: (1) have never been justified, and (2) cannot, and should not, survive in our new era of media abundance and technological convergence.
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