Under the Bush administration, the Federal Communications Commission has reversed its traditionally lenient attitude toward what are called "fleeting expletives" and pledged to crack down on vulgar and obscene comments on broadcast TV.

But this week a federal appeals court ruled that the policy was arbitrary and capricious, and doubted whether it could be rewritten in a way that wouldn't run afoul of the First Amendment.

The cases at issue involved blurted obscenities, which celebrities on awards shows seem peculiarly prone to, and some ripe dialogue in an episode of "NYPD Blue."

Nobody has been hit with a fine yet for indecent language, although 20 CBS stations face fines for Janet Jackson's famed wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl broadcast. Since the then-Republican Congress two years ago raised the maximum fine for an indecency rap to $325,000, the networks are taking no chances.

All four major networks were party to the suit and pleased by the outcome, with Fox Broadcasting saying in a statement "that government regulation of content serves no purpose other than chill artistic expression in violation of the First Amendment."

In truth, the FCC faces an impossible task, trying to regulate certain speech while societal mores are changing rapidly and in an industry that itself is in constant flux.

The court described the FCC's indecency test as "undefined, indiscernible, inconsistent and unconstitutionally vague." The court seemed skeptical that the FCC could rewrite its policy in a way that would overcome these objections.

The proliferation of cable and radio channels ensure that viewers have access to vulgarity-free programming and proliferating technologies ensure that parents can bar their children from adult language.

And while it's not a view that the FCC shares, certain swear words, including the f-word, have become so common as to be devoid of denotative meaning and, indeed, any meaning at all.

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