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Indecency Ruling Changes the Game

In light of today’s decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit invalidating the FCC’s indecency policy, it would be hard to justify writing about anything else. From my first days as a young lawyer screening programs before they were aired (I still remember assessing the legalities of airing a live satellite feed of “Carnaval” from Rio) to defending stations accused of airing indecent programming in FCC enforcement actions, the FCC’s indecency policy has been an ever-present, ever-broadening part of the practice. While the definition of indecency has remained largely constant (“language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities”), its interpretation has always been a moving target.

When the Supreme Court originally found that requiring indecent content to be channeled into late-night hours was constitutional, it did so based upon a narrow view of what qualified as indecent content (basically George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine) and the assurance of the FCC that restrained enforcement would protect First Amendment concerns. Over the next twenty years or so, broadcasters programmed accordingly, and with a few exceptions, broadcasters and the FCC learned to coexist on the issue of indecency.

However, the rise of cable television placed immense pressure on both television and radio broadcasters to more precisely map the boundary between “decent” and “indecent” content. While most broadcasters remained determined to stay on the “decent” side of that line, they could no longer afford to remain at such a safe distance from that line as to be deemed “fogey programming” by a generation of consumers that did not distinguish between broadcast programming and cable programming. To these viewers, all channels are equal, and whether programming arrives by cable, satellite, or antenna is beside the point. To reach this audience, many programmers struggled mightily to make their programming more edgy and relevant to young adults. This programming stayed clear of Carlin’s seven dirty words, and focused more on situation and entendre to engage its audience.

In response, the FCC stepped onto a slippery slope, seeking to broaden its interpretation of indecency by expanding its view of what constitutes “patently offensive” material. The FCC was not prepared for the mission it undertook. What at first appeared to be a slippery slope of line drawing quickly became a well-greased plunge into the abyss of eternal peril. Those filing complaints at the FCC often urged the agency, as a practical matter, to forget that indecency must be patently offensive and instead sought action against content that was merely offensive to the complainant. The result has been a gut-wrenching high speed slalom down the slippery slope, resulting in the FCC’s headfirst encounter today with the large oak doors of the Second Circuit’s courtroom.

Although the court based today’s ruling on a finding that the FCC’s interpretation of indecency is impermissibly vague, and therefore chilling of protected speech, the problem actually goes far deeper than that. Some of the greatest damage to free speech has resulted from complaints where just about everyone, including the FCC, would agree that indecency is not present. While baseless complaints were once met with a prompt and pleasant FCC letter notifying the complainant that the subject of their complaint was categorically not indecent, the FCC in later years treated every complaint even mentioning the word “indecency” as a reason to put a hold on that station’s license renewal or sale application for literally years until the FCC could investigate the complaint. In the meantime, these stations struggled, as a delayed license renewal made obtaining financing difficult, and a delayed sale often meant that the contract to sell the station expired before the FCC could resolve the indecency complaint and approve the sale. Under these circumstances, it is pretty easy to see how a station would be hesitant to say anything offensive to anyone, even without the potential for a $325,000 indecency fine.

Among the “indecency” complaints I have encountered that were holding up a station’s applications at the FCC was a complaint from a politician who didn’t like what a station said about him (apparently using the word “indecent” in his complaint got it put into the indecency pile), and a complaint that a Spanish word yelled at soccer matches when a goal is scored sounds too much like a bad word in English. When such complaints are allowed to languish or become the basis of a pointless inquiry, they interfere with the operations of a station, serve to chill future speech, and create a “bunker mentality” among broadcasters that anything they say will be held against them.

So where does this leave us? Well, as a pragmatic matter, the court’s ruling will not become effective until it issues its mandate, and the FCC may ask that the court delay taking that action while the FCC seeks a rehearing en banc or review by the Supreme Court. If the court’s ruling does become effective, it will apply only within the jurisdiction of the Second Circuit (which includes Connecticut, New York and Vermont). Both legally and politically, the FCC will feel compelled to pursue an appeal, and the result of that effort will determine the future of its indecency enforcement efforts across the US.

That places the FCC in a very high stakes game of poker. Does it place an ever larger bet on trying to defend its existing policy? If it does, it runs the risk that the Supreme Court will rule that the very notion of indecency enforcement is unconstitutional in light of a changing media landscape and the FCC’s seeming inability to apply a narrow and restrained enforcement policy. Or, does it fold this hand and return to the table later with a “back to basics” indecency policy similar to what was once found constitutional by the Supreme Court? One thing’s for certain–for the first time in a long time, broadcasters are holding all the right cards in this game.