Broadcasting case watched in new Court term

Saturday, October 1, 2011

WASHINGTON — As the Supreme Court prepares to begin its new term Oct. 3, the nation’s major broadcasters are focused on one case that has the potential to reshape regulation of the airwaves.

The federal appeals court in New York threw out the Federal Communications Commission’s rules that apply when children are likely to be watching. That includes a ban on the use of curse words as well as fines against broadcasters who showed a woman’s nude buttocks on a 2003 episode of ABC’s “NYPD Blue.” The Supreme Court said it would review the case, FCC v. Fox Television Stations.

The television networks argue that the policy is inconsistently applied and outdated, taking in only broadcast television and leaving unregulated the same content if transmitted on cable TV or over the Internet.

“Singling out broadcast television doesn’t make much more sense anymore,” said Jonathan Cohn, a former Justice Department official. Cohn’s law firm, Sidley, Austin, represents Fox Television Stations in the case. The Obama administration is defending the FCC’s indecency policy.

In an earlier version of the same case, the justices and lawyers discussed the policy for an hour without uttering any of the offending words.

Another case with First Amendment implications involves religious liberty. The Court said it would decide whether a teacher at a church-run school is a religious or secular worker when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act, agreeing to hear an appeal from a Lutheran church and school in Redford, Mich.

The “ministerial exception” case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The First Amendment doctrine involves exemptions from federal anti-discrimination laws for clergy and other religious employees, so that houses of worship can hire and fire leaders without government interference.

The First Amendment Center Online contributed to this report.