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M.I.A.’s Super Bowl gesture adds fuel to Supreme Court indecency case

Singer flashes middle finger while high court considers whether FCC can fine broadcasters for offensive words and images

Sunday’s Super Bowl evoked a bit of outrage—not just among dejected New England Patriots fans, but also among viewers who took offense to British singer M.I.A.’s crude gesture.

During this year’s halftime show, which according to the Neilsen Co. was the most-watched halftime entertainment show ever with 111.3 million viewers, the notoriously controversial M.I.A. flashed her middle finger to the camera while performing with the pop legend Madonna.

The incident brought back memories of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, which featured singer Janet Jackson’s now-infamous “wardrobe malfunction.” At the end of her performance with musical artist Justin Timberlake, Timberlake “accidentally” tore off a piece of Jackson’s costume, briefly exposing her breast to more than 90 million TV viewers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined broadcaster CBS and its affiliates $550,000 for violating its indecency policy. But on Nov. 2, 2011, the 3rd Circuit threw out the FCC’s fine, saying the agency improperly penalized CBS for violating a previously unannounced policy.

Early last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments for a similar case (FCC v. Fox Television Stations), which centers on expletives that celebrities Cher and Nicole Richie uttered during the live broadcasts of the Billboard Music Awards in 2002 and 2003, respectively. The FCC found Fox liable for airing the indecent programming.

Experts say the high court’s Fox decision, which is expected by June, should determine whether the FCC’s indecency standards, which prohibit broadcasters from airing fleeting expletives or images between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., are unconstitutionally vague. According to the Wall Street Journal, the court is likely to uphold the agency’s regulation of broadcast indecency.

NBC stations, which aired this year’s Super Bowl, could face fines of up to $325,000 each for showing M.I.A.’s gesture. 

Contributing Author

Ashley Post

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