‘Wardrobe Malfunction’ Legal Battle Finally Over

Chief Justice John Roberts doesn’t believe the “malfunction” was truly an accident, but he doesn’t think CBS should have to pay.

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David Philliip / Associated Press

Singers Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson perform at Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston on Feb. 1, 2004, moments before the infamous "wardrobe malfunction."

In Feburary 2004, Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Janet Jackson’s clothing during a Superbowl halftime performance, exposing her bare breast to a TV audience of 90 million. The incident, famously euphemized as a “wardrobe malfunction,” shocked America and prompted an eight-year legal battle that has gone as far as the highest court in the nation.

But that’s where it stops. The Supreme Court announced Friday that it would not review the case — in which the CBS television network challenged a fine levied by the Federal Communications Commission for airing the momentary indecency — allowing a lower court’s cancellation of the fine to stand, SCOTUSblog reports.

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The 9/16th of a second of nudity led to a lengthy series of legal appeals and re-appeals. At the time, the FCC had a formal policy of imposing fines for even the most fleeting instances of indecent words or images. In line with that policy, the agency fined CBS $550,000 — the largest fine ever levied against a television broadcaster.

CBS appealed on grounds that the FCC seemed fairly capricious as to when and how it enforced its policy on indecency, and would even change it without notice. The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in CBS’s favor.

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The Court announced today that it would bypass review of the case, allowing the Third Circuit’s ruling to stand. Chief Justice John Roberts filed a separate opinion stating that he did not believe the FCC had actually changed its policy.

Roberts added that he found Timberlake’s explanation that the nudity was simply a “wardrobe malfunction” unconvincing. The claim that the exposure was a mistake “strained the credulity of the public,” Roberts said.

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In a related case, the Supreme Court ruled last week to throw out FCC fines against Fox News and ABC for fleeting instances of indecent language, finding that the networks had not had fair notice of the nature of the fines. The Court effectively sidestepped the issue of whether the fines violate free speech rights.

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