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CBS wins ruling in Janet Jackson 'wardrobe malfunction' case

An appeals court panel upholds its earlier ruling that the FCC's fine of $500,000 for indecency was invalid.

November 03, 2011|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times
  • Janet Jackson covers up after Justin Timberlake pulled off part of her top and revealed her breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.
Janet Jackson covers up after Justin Timberlake pulled off part of her top… (Win McNamee, Reuters Photo )

CBS Corp. scored another legal victory in its long-running fight with the Federal Communications Commission over Janet Jackson's televised "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia upheld its earlier ruling that the FCC's indecency fine of $500,000 against the network was invalid.

At issue is the procedural process the regulatory agency used to fine CBS for the incident, in which Justin Timberlake tore off a piece of Jackson's clothing, briefly exposing her breast to an audience of about 90 million. Jackson attributed the incident to a "wardrobe malfunction," a phrase that became part of the national lexicon. The court ruled that the FCC's fine was predicated upon an undisclosed change in the enforcement of its indecency policy with regard to "fleeting images," and hence could not be enforced.

"The FCC failed to acknowledge that its order in this case reflected a policy change and improperly imposed a penalty on CBS for violating a previously unannounced policy," the court said.

The FCC said in a statement that while it was disappointed by the decision, it was pleased that the court "did not question the FCC's statutory responsibility to regulate indecent broadcasting." It also said that the agency would "continue to use all of the authority at its disposal to ensure that the nation's broadcasters fulfill the public interest responsibilities that accompany their use of the public airwaves."

It was unclear whether the FCC would appeal the ruling to either the full 3rd Circuit or to the Supreme Court.

"We are gratified that once again the court has ruled in our favor. We are hopeful that this will help lead the FCC to return to the policy of restrained indecency enforcement it followed for decades," CBS said in a prepared statement.

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