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'Bonanza' is alive and well at the Supreme Court

The FCC's rules on what can, and can't, be shown or said on the public airwaves may have a quaint feel to most Americans, but the Supreme Court seems to like them just fine
Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called them "the nine old men." 

If Roosevelt were alive today, he might change that to "the nine old ladies."

That's because -- practically to a man, and woman -- the justices of the Supreme Court on Tuesday spoke in favor of FCC rules regulating what can or can't be shown, or said, on the public airwaves.

In an editorial about the decency rules Tuesday, published before the oral arguments, The Times argued that the court "needs to recognize that the day is fast approaching when it will have to decide whether the FCC should be in the business of policing indecency at all."

On Tuesday, the justices seemingly gave their answer: That day isn't approaching all that fast after all.

First, let's hear from the chief justice:

"All we are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where you ... are not going to hear the 'S-word,' the 'F-word.' [Children] are not going to see nudity," said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the father of two young children. "There are 800 channels where they can go for that."

Next, everyone's favorite conservative:

"These are public airwaves. The government is entitled to insist upon a certain modicum of decency," said Justice Antonin Scalia, who has nine grown children. He compared broadcast offerings with "the vulgarity of cable."

What about the court's moderates, you ask?

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he would not relish a time when "every celebrity and want-to-be celebrity ... can feel free to use one of these words" when interviewed on TV. It would be "inevitable" that the airwaves would become filled with such talk if the indecency rules were tossed out, he said.

And:

Under the FCC rules against so-called fleeting expletives, Fox TV faced potential fines when celebrities, including Cher, Bono and Nicole Richie, used the "F-word" on awards programs that were broadcast live. This "seems to be naturally part of their vocabulary," observed Justice Stephen Breyer.

OK, OK, but surely a liberal ...

"We have had this for decades and decades that broadcast is treated differently," said Justice Elena Kagan. "It seems to work, and it seems to be a good thing that there is some safe haven."

Wow. In much of America, it's 2012, and we're watching shows such as "Californication" and "Mad Men." But in the marble halls of the Supreme Court, it's 1963 -- and hold up, honey, call the kids, it's time for "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke."

But perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from another court conservative:

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. commented that broadcast TV was "living on borrowed time." It is "going the way of vinyl records and eight-track tapes," he said.

Ouch. I guess that's his free-market side coming out. 

Or perhaps he's just being practical: Why bother to throw out rules that will be moot in a few years anyway?

And maybe that's also why this issue doesn't seem to be generating much heat. 

No one really believes that the rules are protecting children: The commercials for Cialis and various beers that accompany coverage of practically every sports event render that a silly notion.

But everyone has cable these days, and if you want shows featuring sex and drugs and bad language -- well, to paraphrase: It's your party and you can swear if you want to.

Meanwhile, though, the Rip Van Winkle justices are content to cling just a little longer to the fantasy of "Father Knows Best."

Shhh. No sense trying to wake them.

ALSO:

Let the preschoolers play

Supreme Court intervenes in Texas redistricting case 

FCC passes rules against excessively loud TV commercials 

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: The justices of the Supreme Court, shown in their official 2010 portrait. Credit: Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images

 

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