Supreme Court Punts on Janet Jackson Breast Case

May 5, 2009 12:00 PM PST
WASHINGTON — In a minor victory for the FCC over broadcast networks, the U.S. Supreme Court punted on the case involving Janet Jackson's breast at the Super Bowl.

The case is formally known as FCC v. CBS Corp., 08-653. CBS broadcast the 2004 Super Bowl, which featured Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake at halftime. During their performance, Timberlake tore off part of Jackson's top, revealing one of her breasts, which bore a sun-shaped ornament on the nipple.

The incident sparked outrage from conservative groups, who complained about nudity during a family-oriented national broadcast. The FCC fined CBS $550,000 for the offense, which the network has been fighting in court ever since.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia struck down the fine, and although the Supreme Court didn't overturn that ruling, they did ask that lower court to reconsider its position. Last week, the Supreme Court also aligned itself with the FCC, giving its OK for the federal agency to hold the threat of fines over the heads of networks that let even a single swear word through its censors.

At odds in the lower court's decision was the idea of what constitutes "shocking." According to precedent, something would only be shocking if it was "so pervasive as to amount to 'shock treatment' for the audience." A lower appellate court hit CBS with the $550,000 fine despite this standard, even though Jackson's naked breast was only on air for less than a second.

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