Supreme Court to Hear Indecency Case

Court Watch 2008/03/19 10:59   Bookmark and Share
The U.S. Supreme Court has stepped into one of the biggest free speech fights of the past three decades, but it's unclear how far the court will go when it rules on just how much trouble broadcasters can get into for a slip of the tongue.

On Monday, the court agreed to hear arguments over the Federal Communications Commission's policy regarding so-called "fleeting expletives" in a closely watched case that will decide whether the government can fine or revoke a broadcaster's license because someone says a bad word. The case will be argued late this year.

Both News Corp., the Fox Broadcasting parent that wanted its victory in a lower court to stand, and the FCC, which pushed the Bush administration to appeal the case, applauded the justices' decision.

"The commission, Congress and most importantly parents understand that protecting our children is our greatest responsibility," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said.

Solicitor general Paul Clement, the Bush administration's top lawyer, urged the court to take the case, arguing that the appeals court decision had placed "the commission in an untenable position," powerless to stop the airing of expletives even when children are watching.

Fox said the move would "give us the opportunity to argue that the FCC's expanded enforcement of the indecency law is unconstitutional in today's diverse media marketplace, where parents have access to a variety of tools to monitor their children's television viewing."

The case surrounds two incidents in which celebrities used profanity during the Billboard Music Awards. In 2002, Cher told the audience: "People have been telling me I'm on the way out every year? So f--- 'em." The next year, Nicole Richie said: "Have you ever tried to get cow s--- out of a Prada purse? It's not so f---ing simple."
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Court Rules in Favor of Wash. Primary

Court News 2008/03/18 11:07   Bookmark and Share
The Supreme Court has upheld the state of Washington's open primary election system.

By a 7-2 vote, the court says the state may use a primary system that allows the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election, even if they are from the same party.

Washington never held a primary under the new system because of legal challenges.

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that overturning Washington's plan would have been an "extraordinary and precipitous nullification of the will of the people."

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said Washington's system would cause a political party to be associated with candidates who may not represent its views. Scalia was joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Lawyers for the political parties said David Duke has identified himself as a Republican, despite GOP repudiation of his racial views, while perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche has called himself a Democrat, despite wide disagreement with Democratic leaders.

Under Washington's system, all candidates for a particular office may list their political party preference after their names.

The top-two plan was created after state voters approved a law in 2004 allowing them to pick their favorite candidate for each office. The top two vote-getters would advance to the November general election, even if they are from the same party.

The major parties challenged the law in federal court, asserting a First Amendment right to select their own nominees without outside interference.

A federal judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down the election plan.

Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna argued there was no evidence that the parties would be harmed, since they can publicize through advertising and other means which candidates they support.

Tuesday's decision is the second of two this year on the rights of political parties. In New York, the justices said the state's method of electing trial judges, which gives party bosses effective control of the process, does not violate the Constitution.

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Supreme Court to rule on broadcast indecency

Headline Legal News 2008/03/18 10:10   Bookmark and Share

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to rule for the first time in 30 years on what constitutes indecency on broadcast television and radio.

The justices will weigh whether federal regulators may levy large fines on broadcasters who let expletives on the airwaves during daytime and early evening hours.

The court could rule that the Federal Communications Commission has broad power to decide what is acceptable for broadcasts. Or the justices could conclude that the 1st Amendment's protection for the freedom of speech does not allow the government to punish broadcasters for an occasional vulgarity.

The justices have not ruled on the indecency standard since 1978, when they upheld fines against a radio station for broadcasting comedian George Carlin's "seven dirty words" monologue in midafternoon. One justice described Carlin's performance as "a sort of verbal shock treatment" because the familiar curse words were repeated over and over.

Since then, however, it has been unclear whether the use of a single expletive could be judged indecent. Federal law forbids broadcasting "any obscene, indecent or profane language," but Congress has left it to the FCC and the courts to define indecency.

Last year, the major networks won a ruling in New York that blocked the FCC from enforcing a strict new rule against the broadcasting of "fleeting expletives."

Bush administration lawyers urged the high court to take up the dispute and to give the FCC a green light to enforce its crackdown on vulgar words. The government says broadcasters who use the public airwaves have a duty to protect children and families from unexpectedly hearing foul language.

The FCC has fined CBS $550,000 for broadcasting Janet Jackson's performance at the 2004 Super Bowl, which included a brief exposure of her breast. The network is appealing the fine in a court in Philadelphia.

The president of the Parents Television Council in Los Angeles applauded the court's announcement. "Such harsh, unedited profanity is unacceptable for broadcast over publicly owned airwaves when children are likely to be watching," said Timothy Winter, the president.

His group claims more than 1.2 million members, and he said many complained when they heard expletives used during Hollywood award shows. "It seems you can't have an awards show without someone dropping an F-bomb," Winter said.

The FCC cited several incidents that led it to issue the new rule. Singer Bono of U2 exulted upon winning a Golden Globe for an original song, calling it "really, really f . . . brilliant." Entertainer Cher described a career achievement award on another program as a rebuke to her critics. "So, f . . . 'em. I still have a job and they don't," she said.

The major TV networks sued to block the rule. In their defense, they say they have firm policies against the use of vulgar words. They are not included in scripts, for example. But on occasion, they say, these words have slipped passed monitors and gone on the air when a guest performer appeared on a live broadcast.

The networks used a five-second delay on several of the live broadcasts cited by the FCC, but a monitor failed to bleep out the expletive.

The stakes for broadcasters increased when Congress voted in 2006 to raise the maximum fines for indecency tenfold. Network executives say they could face millions of dollars in fines for letting a single expletive go on the air during a national broadcast.

In March 2004, shortly after the Janet Jackson incident, the FCC adopted its zero-tolerance policy for "fleeting expletives." The commissioners rejected the defense that Bono had used the F-word as an adjective, not a curse.

The U.S. appeals court in New York, in its ruling last year, agreed with the broadcasters that the FCC had not justified its abrupt change in policy. Its judges also said the policy was unclear because the F-word was permitted in some news shows and in the TV broadcast of "Saving Private Ryan." The commissioners said the profanity on the D-day beaches was integral to depicting the horror of war.

Lawyers for the broadcasters had urged the Supreme Court to steer clear of the case. They said the FCC should be forced to reconsider and clarify its policy.

"I thought there was no chance they would take this case," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project. "If the FCC is affirmed, the message will be that indecency is whatever the FCC says it is."

It is not clear whether the growth of new media will affect the court's view of what is indecent. Since the court last ruled on the issue, cable TV, the Internet and satellite radio have emerged as competitors to traditional broadcasters. But these new media are not regulated by the FCC because they do not transmit signals over the public airwaves. Arguments in the FCC vs. Fox TV will be heard in the fall.

The court also agreed to decide whether the special protections added to the Voting Rights Act in 1982 extended to communities where blacks make up less than half the population.

The outcome in Bartlett vs. Strickland could affect how electoral districts are drawn after the 2010 census. The law forbids states from splitting up large blocs of black voters who could elect a black representative to a state legislature or Congress. But it is not clear whether this protection is triggered only if blacks make up a majority of the community.

The court will also decide in Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts whether criminal defendants have a right to question lab technicians whose reports are used by prosecutors. In recent years, the court has stressed that defendants have a right to confront all witnesses.

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Supreme Court Gun Case Draws Protesters

Headline Legal News 2008/03/18 09:09   Bookmark and Share
Advocates of gun rights and opponents of gun violence demonstrated outside the Supreme Court Tuesday while inside, justices heard arguments over the meaning of the Second Amendment's "right to keep and bear arms."

Dozens of protesters mingled with tourists and waved signs saying "Ban the Washington elitists, not our guns" or "The NRA helps criminals and terrorist buy guns."

Members of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence chanted "guns kill" as followers of the Second Amendment Sisters and Maryland Shall Issue.Org shouted "more guns, less crime."

A line to get into the court for the historic arguments began forming two days earlier and extended more than a block by early Tuesday.

The high court's first extensive examination of the Second Amendment since 1939 grew out of challenge to the District of Columbia's ban on ownership of handguns.

Anise Jenkins, president of a coalition called Stand Up for Democracy in D.C., defended the district's 32-year-old ban on handgun ownership.

"We feel our local council knows what we need for a good standard of life and to keep us safe," Jenkins said.

Genie Jennings, a resident of South Perwick, Maine, and national spokewoman for Second Amendment Sisters, said the law banning handguns in Washington "is denying individuals the right to defend themselves."

The court has not conclusively interpreted the Second Amendment in the 216 years since its ratification. The basic issue for the justices is whether the amendment protects an individual's right to own guns or whether that right is somehow tied to service in a state militia.

Even if the court determines there is an individual right, the justices still will have to decide whether the District's ban can stand and how to evaluate other gun control laws. This issue has caused division within the Bush administration, with Vice President Dick Cheney taking a harder line than the administration's official position at the court.

The local Washington government argues that its law should be allowed to remain in force whether or not the amendment applies to individuals, although it reads the amendment as intended to allow states to have armed forces.

The City Council that adopted the ban said it was justified because "handguns have no legitimate use in the purely urban environment of the District of Columbia."

Dick Anthony Heller, 65, an armed security guard, sued the District after it rejected his application to keep a handgun at his home for protection. His lawyers say the amendment plainly protects an individual's right.

The 27 words and three enigmatic commas of the Second Amendment have been analyzed again and again by legal scholars, but hardly at all by the Supreme Court.

The amendment reads: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

The last Supreme Court ruling on the topic came in 1939 in U.S. v. Miller, which involved a sawed-off shotgun. Constitutional scholars disagree over what that case means but agree it did not squarely answer the question of individual versus collective rights.

Chief Justice John Roberts said at his confirmation hearing that the correct reading of the Second Amendment was "still very much an open issue."

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High Court Agrees to Hear Indecency Case

Legal Business 2008/03/17 17:00   Bookmark and Share
The Supreme Court will decide whether it is indecent when some foul-mouthed celebrity drops the "F-word" on live television, stepping into its first major broadcast indecency case in 30 years.

The high court said Monday it will hear arguments in a case over whether the government can ban "fleeting expletives," one-time uses of familiar but profane words.

The case grew out of decision by the Federal Communications Commission in 2006 that two broadcasts of the "Billboard Music Awards" show were indecent, though the agency levied no fines. Cher uttered one fleeting expletive beginning with "F" and Nicole Richie uttered a variation of the same word and another one beginning with "S."

Fox Broadcasting Co. and others appealed the decision, saying that the agency had changed its enforcement policy without warning and that the new ban was unconstitutional.

A federal appeals court in New York agreed, 2-1, throwing out the ban and sending the case back to the agency, which appealed to the Supreme Court.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told The Associated Press Monday that he was pleased the justices are stepping in. He said the appeals court had "put the commission in an untenable position" by giving it the responsibility to enforce indecency rules but not the tools to take action.

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Inmate Wins Supreme Court Review

Headline Legal News 2008/03/17 16:58   Bookmark and Share
A Texas inmate acting as his own attorney persuaded the Supreme Court on Monday to hear his case.

Carlos Jimenez was sentenced to 43 years in prison in 1995 after pleading guilty to burglary and violating the terms of his probation. Jimenez had a prior felony conviction for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

In 2005, acting as his own lawyer, Jimenez petitioned a federal court, challenging his burglary conviction and asserting that he had not received proper legal representation when he went before the state courts in San Angelo, Texas.

The federal judge said Jimenez had waited too long to file his petition and refused to extend the deadline. Federal law gives state inmates one year after a conviction is final to petition a federal court for review of their cases.

At issue is Jimenez's argument that the one-year clock should have started all over again in 2005 because of the unusual circumstances of his case.

In 1996, a state appeals court dismissed Jimenez's appeal after a court-appointed lawyer said in court papers that in his professional opinion, Jimenez had no grounds for an appeal.

Nearly six years later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to let Jimenez file an appeal based on his argument that his attorney in 1996 had not properly notified him of what the attorney was planning to do. The appeals court wrapped up its work on Jimenez's belated petitions in 2005, after affirming his conviction and sentence.

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