The Supreme Court today ruled that fleeting swearing and nudity is acceptable in free-to-air television as it overturned Federal Communications Commission fines of millions of dollars on networks and told the regulator to change its guidelines.
Under most recent policy, several broadcasters had been issued fines running into the millions for allowing swear words and scenes of nudity to air between 6am and 10pm.
However, judges overturned the fines, which are imposed by the FCC, and said that current rules should be revised.
Under the recent policy, which dates back to 2001 and was amended in 2004, broadcasters can be fined for airing a single profanity on a live show or for brief nudity.
They are not allowed to say the 'F-word' or 'S-word' specifically. Cable and satellite stations are not subject to the conditions.
For years, the FCC would allow 'one-off' incidents of swearing or brief nudity. However the commission changed its policy after four key events.
One case involved two awards shows on News Corp's Fox television network in 2002 and 2003 when singer Cher and actress and fashion designer Nicole Richie both used expletives on live television.
Another involved a seven-second shot of actress Charlotte Ross' nude backside on an episode of NYPD Blue episode in 2003.
That case ended in $1.21million in fines for the ABC network.
The fourth incident was U2's lead singer Bono use of the 'F-word' during the Golden Globes.
Then, in 2004 pop star Janet Jackson exposed her breast during the halftime show for the Superbowl.
The act drew half a million complaints by viewers and led to further amendments in the FCC's policy.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his ruling on Thursday that the FCC's standards were inconsistent and broadcasters had not been given enough warning.
Examples such as the FCC allowing profanity in the films Saving Private Ryan and of nudity in Schindlers List were used when they objected to it in different programmes.
Justice Kennedy also said there was no need to address the constitutional free-speech issue under the First Amendment.
The executive vice president of the communications at the National Association of Broadcasters said it was right that the broadcast industry should be self-regulating.
'NAB has long believed that responsible industry self-regulation is preferable to government regulation in areas of programming content,' said Dennis Wharton.
As a result of the case, policy returns to the 34-year-old precedent set by the FCC when it censored the notorious 'filthy words' monologue of the comedian George Carlin in 1978.
Carlin's comedic exploration of the public's prudery over swear words – in which he let rip a string of the worst swear words possible on public television – led to the Supreme Court ruling that deliberate use of expletives would not be used before 10pm.