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The FCC Makes Its Indecency Case at the Supreme Court, But Has the Court Already Shown Its Cards?

The FCC today filed its Brief at the U.S. Supreme Court defending its actions against Fox and ABC programming it found to be indecent. In the case of Fox, the alleged indecency was celebrity expletives uttered during the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards, while ABC was fined for rear nudity shown during an episode of NYPD Blue. As I wrote earlier, the fact that the Court is reviewing such disparate forms of indecency (fleeting expletives during live programming versus nudity during scripted programming) increases the likelihood of a broader ruling by the court regarding indecency policy, as opposed to a decision limited to the very specific facts of these two cases.

When the Supreme Court was contemplating whether to hear the FCC’s appeal of the lower court decisions, some broadcasters urged the Court to look beyond these particular cases and rule on the continued viability of Red Lion. The Red Lion case is a 1969 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional to limit broadcasters’ First Amendment rights based upon the scarcity of broadcast spectrum. The logic behind Red Lion was that since there isn’t enough spectrum available for everyone to have their own broadcast station, those fortunate enough to get a broadcast license must accept government restrictions on its use. Red Lion is the basis for many of the FCC regulations imposed on broadcasters, but the FCC’s indecency policy is Red Lion‘s most obvious offspring.

While Red Lion is the elephant in the room in any case involving broadcasters’ First Amendment rights, its emergence in the Fox/ABC case was particularly unsurprising. In an earlier stage of the Fox proceeding, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that the FCC’s indecency enforcement was an arbitrary and capricious violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The Court’s decision was not, however, a show of unanimity. The 5-4 decision included a main opinion from Justice Scalia, but also two concurrences and three dissents. The most interesting aspect of the fractured decision came from Justice Thomas, who joined the majority in finding that the FCC had not violated the Administrative Procedure Act, but who also noted the “deep intrusion into the First Amendment rights of broadcasters” and questioned whether Red Lion was still viable in the Internet age.

It is certainly true that much of the logic supporting Red Lion has been undercut by a changing world. There are now far more broadcast stations than newspapers, but no one argues that the scarcity of newspapers justifies limiting their First Amendment rights. Similarly, the Internet has given those seeking not just a local audience, but a national or even international audience a very low cost alternative for reaching those audiences. While broadcast stations may still be the best way of reaching large local audiences, they are no longer the only way.

These are just a few of the many changes occurring since 1969 that weaken the foundation of Red Lion. If you put two communications lawyers in a room and give them five minutes, they will be able to generate at least a dozen other reasons why Red Lion‘s day has passed. Try this at your next cocktail party. It’s far better than charades and communications lawyers need to get out more anyway.

It is therefore not surprising that broadcasters accepted Justice Thomas’s invitation and urged the Court to reconsider Red Lion in evaluating the constitutionality of indecency regulation. What is interesting, however, is that when the Court agreed to review the lower court decisions, it explicitly limited its review to the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency policy, and declined to consider the broader questions raised by Justice Thomas with regard to Red Lion.

While some saw that as a defeat for broadcasters, I am inclined to think it was something else entirely. Although the composition of the Court has changed a bit since 2009, it is worth noting that four justices questioned the FCC’s indecency policy then, and a fifth justice explicitly questioned Red Lion, the very foundation of that policy. Given that it only takes the votes of four justices for the Court to agree to hear an appeal, the exclusion of Red Lion from that review is curious, and it is certainly possible that Justice Thomas is alone in his concern about the continued viability of Red Lion.

More likely, however, is that the Court is adhering to its long-held doctrine of keeping decisions as narrow as possible when addressing the constitutionality of a particular law or regulation. If that is the case, then the justices may well have concluded that the FCC’s indecency policy, at least in its current form, cannot survive constitutional review, and that there is no need to consider the broader issue of whether the government has any viable basis for regulating broadcasters and broadcast content. Stated differently, If the Court was inclined to uphold the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency policy, an assessment of the continued viability of Red Lion would be critical to that decision, since a constitutional policy for which the government lacks a constitutional basis to impose on broadcasters is still unconstitutional.

While it is always a risky endeavor to attempt to “read” the Court, the entire basis of indecency policy is to protect children from content the government finds unsuitable for them. It is therefore telling that on the very day the Court agreed to hear the FCC’s appeal, it also released a decision overturning a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors, finding in a 7-2 decision that the law infringed upon the First Amendment, regardless of its intent to protect children. That decision makes clear that the Court will not merely accept “protecting children” as a valid basis for limiting First Amendment activities.

Of course, the California ban on sales of violent video games to minors affected only minors, whereas the FCC’s restriction on indecency limits the broadcast content that everyone–adults and minors alike–can access from 6am-10pm every day (the hours during which indecent broadcast content is prohibited). That fact, combined with the reality that there is far more “First Amendment” speech (political and otherwise) on radio and television than in most video games, means that the FCC may have a tough job convincing the Court that the FCC’s indecency policy can coexist with the First Amendment.