Articles Posted in Indecency

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:


  • Michigan Class A TV Station Agrees to Pay $45,000 for Numerous Children’s Programming and Public Inspection File Violations
  • New York TV Station Agrees to $10,000 Consent Decree to End FCC Investigation into Indecency Allegations
  • California Radio Licensee Agrees to $8,000 Consent Decree for Unauthorized Transfer of Control

Michigan Class A TV Station Acknowledges Children’s Programming and Public Inspection File Problems

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a Class A TV station in Michigan to resolve an investigation into violations of the Children’s Television Act (“CTA”) and the FCC’s public inspection file rule.

The CTA, as implemented by Section 73.671 of the FCC’s Rules, requires full power TV stations to provide sufficient programming designed to serve the educational and informational needs of children, known as “Core Programming”, and Section 73.6026 extends this requirement to Class A stations. The FCC’s license renewal application processing guidelines direct Media Bureau staff to approve the CTA portion of any license renewal application where the licensee shows that it has aired an average of 3 hours per week of Core Programming per program stream. Staff can also approve the CTA portion of a license renewal application where the licensee demonstrates that it has aired a package of different types of educational and informational programming that, even if less than 3 hours of Core Programming per week, shows a level of commitment to educating and informing children equivalent to airing 3 hours per week of Core Programming. Applications that do not satisfy the processing guidelines are referred to the full Commission, where the licensee will have a chance to demonstrate its compliance with the CTA.

Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires commercial broadcasters to maintain public inspection files containing specific types of information related to station operations, and subsection 73.3526(b)(2) requires TV and non-exempt radio stations to upload most of that information to the FCC-hosted online public inspection file. For example, subsection 73.3526(e)(11) requires TV stations to place in their public inspection file (i) Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists describing the “programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period” and (ii) certifications of compliance with the commercial limits on children’s programming. In addition, subsection 73.3526(e)(17) requires Class A stations to place in their public files documentation demonstrating compliance with Class A eligibility requirements.

In May 2013, the station filed its license renewal application. Upon review of the station’s public file, the FCC found that the station had failed to timely file Children’s TV Programming Reports for 35 quarters, and failed to place in its public file numerous required documents, such as Issues/Programs Lists, Commercial Limit Certifications, and Class A Eligibility Certifications. In May 2016, upon request of the FCC, the station amended its renewal application to acknowledge and describe the violations. The station made additional clarifications to the application in November 2016.

The Media Bureau’s audit of the station’s children’s programming revealed that the station failed to meet the three hour Core Programming processing guideline for ten quarters, for an aggregate shortfall of 110 hours, with quarterly deficiencies ranging from one hour to 22 hours. As a result, the station’s application was referred to the full Commission for consideration.

The station subsequently entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC to resolve the investigation into public file and children’s programming violations. As part of the Consent Decree, the station admitted liability, agreed to make a $45,000 settlement payment to the government, and agreed to implement a compliance plan. In turn, the FCC agreed to grant the station’s license renewal application for a short-term period of two years instead of the regular eight-year term.

Under the compliance plan, the station must, among other things, designate a compliance officer responsible for compliance with the FCC’s Rules, air at least four hours of Core Programming per week (as averaged over a six-month period), provide training to staff on compliance with the FCC’s Rules, and work with outside legal counsel to obtain guidance on FCC compliance issues. The compliance plan will stay in effect until final FCC action is taken on the station’s next license renewal application.

New York TV Station Agrees to $10,000 Consent Decree to End FCC Investigation into Indecency Allegations

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a New York TV station to resolve an investigation into whether the station aired indecent programming.

Section 73.3999 of the FCC’s Rules restricts the broadcast of indecent material between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. In addition, Section 73.1217 (the “broadcast hoax rule”) forbids the broadcast of “false information concerning a crime or catastrophe if: (a) The [station] knows the information is false; (b) It is foreseeable that broadcast of the information will cause substantial public harm; and (3) Broadcast of the information does in fact cause substantial public harm.”

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Whenever we report on FCC indecency decisions, it is always an interesting test of our subscribers’ spam filters. I am betting today’s FCC enforcement action will trigger more than its share of spam alerts.

In recent years, the FCC has been less active in issuing indecency fines as it struggles to draw a line between permissible and impermissible broadcast content that the courts will support. As a result, it has been relying more heavily on consent decrees, in which the alleged violator agrees to make a payment to the government and institute a compliance program in return for the FCC agreeing to terminate its investigation. By pursuing this path, the FCC avoids having to defend its indecency rules in court, and the alleged violator can sidestep a costly and uncertain appeal process.

Sometimes, however, the FCC channels Justice Potter Stewart in his famous view of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Today was just such an occasion, where the FCC proposed the maximum statutory fine of $325,000 for a station that appears to have unintentionally crossed the FCC’s indecency line.

WDBJ(TV), Roanoke, Virginia, aired a story in its newscast about “a former adult film star who had joined a local volunteer rescue squad.” To illustrate the story, the photojournalist preparing the report included a video screen grab of an adult website showing the subject of the report (who was neither nude nor engaged in sexual activity).

In the analog small-screen world of a prior generation, that would have been the end of it. However, living in a big-screen, high definition world, viewers noticed something that the station had missed. According to the FCC, “[t]he website, which was partially displayed along with the video image, is bordered on the right side by boxes showing video clips from other films that do not appear to show the woman who is the subject of the news report.”

Unfortunately for the station, one of those boxes showed “a video image of a hand stroking an erect penis.” As an aside, the decision is worth reading purely to see the variety of ways the FCC finds to describe this content.

The licensee of the station noted that “the smaller boxes, including the image of the penis, were not visible on the monitors in the Station’s editing bay, and therefore, the Station’s News Director and other management personnel who had reviewed the story did not see the indecent material prior to the broadcast.” It also noted that the video appeared for less than three seconds of the three minute and twenty second story.

The FCC apparently had no trouble seeing it, however, finding that the video met the definition of “indecency” in that it was “material that, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” Because the content aired in the newscast at approximately 6pm, the FCC found that it did not fall within the 10pm-6am safe harbor in which indecent material may normally be aired, and therefore merited enforcement action. While the base fine for indecency is $7,000, the FCC found that “the patently offensive depiction of graphic and explicit sexual material obtained by the Station from an adult film website–is extreme and grave enough to warrant a significant increase from the $7,000 base forfeiture amount.” Building up steam, the FCC proceeded to throw more adjectives at it, finding that the content was “extremely graphic, lewd and offensive, and this action heightens the gravity of the violation and justifies a higher forfeiture.”

In proposing, for the first time ever, the maximum statutory fine of $325,000, the FCC added insult to injury, accusing the station of having a small monitor:

We also consider WDBJ to be sufficiently culpable to support a forfeiture. As discussed above, WDBJ broadcast material obtained from an online video distributor of adult films but failed to take adequate precautions to prevent the broadcast of indecent material when it knew, or should have known, that its editing equipment at the time of the apparent violation did not permit full screen review of material intended for broadcast. In addition, the indecent material was plainly visible to the Station employee who downloaded it; he simply didn’t notice it and transmitted it to Station editors who reviewed the story before it was broadcast.

While it’s clear the FCC didn’t have any qualms in pursuing this particular case, it does raise practical questions for broadcasters in less unusual circumstances. For example, might the FCC find a station airing crowd shots at a live sporting event guilty of willful indecency because its monitoring equipment was not large enough to detect that a few members of the crowd were being over-enthusiastic in trying to draw the attention of the kiss-cam? Stations in an analog world could usually rely on the low resolution of the medium to solve “background problems” like adult magazines in the background of a bookstore interview. Similarly, small images in a panning shot of the bookstore would be off the screen so quickly that viewers wouldn’t notice them or couldn’t be sure of what they had seen. In a hi-def world where DVRs make it possible for viewers to replay and analyze video frame by frame, stations must be conscious of every corner of every frame. It’s admittedly not an intuitive response at a time when broadcast stations are increasingly focusing on reaching the mobile audience watching tiny screens rather than on big-screen home viewers.

So what should broadcasters take away from this? Well, as station engineers head to the NAB Show in Vegas in a few weeks, they have a great story to tell their General Managers as to why they need to buy newer and bigger 16:9 studio monitors. As for me, media lawyers are often called upon to assess broadcast content for indecency, so I’m polishing my “guess we need a bigger TV” pitch for my wife. She’s a communications lawyer; she’ll understand.

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April 2014

Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • FCC Proposes $12,000 in Fines for Contest Violations
  • $20,000 Fine for Unlicensed Operation and Interference
  • Violations of Sponsorship Identification and Indecency Rules Lead to $15,000 Consent Decree

Changing Rules and Delay in Conducting Contest Lead to $12,000 in Fines

Late last month, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued two essentially identical Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NALs”) against two radio station licensees for failure to conduct a contest as advertised. Although the stations have different licensees, one licensee provided programming to the second licensee’s station through a time brokerage agreement. The brokering station’s response to a letter of inquiry (“LOI”) addressed both licensees’ actions with regard to the contest. In the subsequent NALs, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau proposed a $4,000 fine against the brokered licensee and an $8,000 fine against the brokering licensee.

In July of 2009, the FCC received a complaint that several radio stations held a weekly contest called “Par 3 Shoot Out” but did not conduct the contest substantially as announced or advertised. Specifically, the complaint maintained that at least one participant did not receive a promised prize of a golf hat and was not entered into a drawing to win a car or other prizes (as was promised in the contest’s rules). About four months later, the FCC issued an LOI to the licensee conducting the contest about the claims made in the complaint. In its response to the LOI, the licensee conducting the contest indicated that the contest consisted of two phases. The first was an 18-week, online golf competition where the highest-scoring contestant each week would win a hat from a golf club. Each weekly winner and one write-in contestant would be able to participate in the second phase of the contest, a real golf competition consisting of taking one shot at a three par hole. As was publicized online, the prize for the winner of the second phase was a $350 golf store gift certificate, and if anyone hit a hole-in-one, they would win a Lexus car.

According to the brokering licensee, the first phase of the contest took place between June and November 2008. The contest took place entirely online, and although the second phase was scheduled to begin in November 2008, it was postponed due to inclement weather and ultimately did not occur at all because the employee who was tasked with running the live golf competition was fired, and the remaining staff never resumed the contest. The brokering licensee further indicated that it forgot about the contest until it received the FCC’s LOI, and, after receiving the LOI, the second phase of the contest occurred and was completed by January 2010. The brokering licensee indicated that it had provided additional prizes of a $25 golf store gift card and a catered lunch to each finalist in the second phase given the delay in conducting the contest.

Section 73.1216 of the FCC’s Rules requires that a station-sponsored contest be conducted “substantially as announced or advertised” and must fully and accurately disclose the “material terms,” including eligibility restrictions, methods of selecting winners, and the extent, nature and value of prizes involved in a contest.

The Enforcement Bureau determined that the contest was not conducted as announced or advertised because the rules were changed during the course of the contest and the contest was not conducted within the promised time frame. The Bureau further found that the licensees failed to fully disclose the material terms of the contest as required by the Commission’s rules. According to the Bureau, the on-air announcements broadcast by the stations failed to mention all of the prizes the licensee planned to award and failed to describe any of the procedures regarding how prizes would be awarded or how the winners would be picked. The brokering licensee argued in its response to the LOI that the full rules were included online, which was a better way to make sure that potential contest participants were not confused. However, the Bureau found that while licensees can supplement broadcast announcements with online rules, online announcements are not a substitute for on-air announcements.

The base fine for failure to conduct a contest as announced is $4,000. The Bureau determined that, contrary to the argument presented in response to the LOI, “neither negligence nor inadvertence” due to the overseeing employee’s departure “can absolve licensees of liability.” The Bureau also said that providing additional prizes to make up for the delay does not overcome the violation of Section 73.1216. Finally, the FCC found that the licensees had failed to disclose the material terms of the contest because the advertisements that were broadcast over the air did not mention certain prizes.

The FCC proposed to impose the base fine amount of $4,000 against the time-brokered station after determining that the licensee had violated Section 73.1216. For the brokering licensee, the FCC proposed an increased fine of $8,000 because of the licensee’s “pattern of violative conduct, and because it conducted the Contest over four stations, not one, thus posing harm to a larger audience.”

Nine Years of Unauthorized Operation and Interference to Wireless Operator Lead to Large Fine

The FCC recently issued a Forfeiture Order to the former licensee of a Private Land Mobile Radio Service (“PLMRS”) station. The Forfeiture Order follows an NAL that the FCC released in July of 2012 proposing a fine of $20,000 for the former licensee of the facility for operating without a license for nine years and causing interference to another wireless service provider.

The former licensee initially received the license for the PLMRS station in April 1997 for a five-year term. Three months before the expiration of the license, the FCC sent the licensee a reminder to renew the license, but the licensee never filed a renewal application. Therefore, the license expired in April of 2002. Nevertheless, the licensee continued operating the station, and on July 31, 2011, filed a request for Special Temporary Authority (“STA”) with the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau of the FCC. The licensee stated in the application that it had recently discovered that its license had expired and that it needed an STA to continue operating the station. The Wireless Bureau granted the STA three days later for a period of six months, until the end of January 2012. Continue reading →

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November 2013

Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • Multiple Indecency Complaints Result in $110,000 Payment
  • $42,000 in Fines for Excessive Power, Wrong Directional Patterns and Incomplete Public Inspection Files
  • Cable Operator Fined $25,000 for Children’s Programming Reports

Broadcaster Enters Into $110,000 Consent Decree Involving Allegations of Indecent Material

The FCC recently approved a consent decree involving a broadcaster with TV stations in California, Utah and Texas accused of airing indecent and profane content.

Section 73.3999 of the FCC’s Rules prohibits radio and television stations from broadcasting obscene material at all times and prohibits indecent material aired between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.

The FCC received multiple complaints about the television show in question and sent Letters of Inquiry to the broadcaster asking it to provide a copy of the program and to answer questions about possible violations of the FCC’s indecency rule. The licensee complied with the requests but maintained that the program did not contain indecent content.

Earlier this month, the FCC entered into a consent decree with the broadcaster and agreed to terminate its investigation and dismiss the pending indecency complaints. Under the terms of the consent decree, the broadcaster is required to (a) designate a Compliance Officer within 30 days, and (b) create and implement a company-wide Compliance Plan within 60 days, which must include: (i) creating operating procedures to ensure compliance with the FCC’s restrictions on indecency, (ii) drafting a Compliance Manual, (iii) training employees about what constitutes indecent content, and (iv) reporting noncompliance to the FCC within 30 days of discovering any violations. The consent decree also requires the filing of a compliance report with the FCC in 90 days and annually thereafter for a period of 3 years. The requirements imposed under the consent decree expire after three years.

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A few minutes ago, the FCC issued a Public Notice granting a thirty-day extension of the deadlines for submitting comments and reply comments in response to the FCC’s April 1, 2013 Public Notice seeking input on whether the Commission should make changes to its current broadcast indecency policies. Comments and reply comments were originally due on May 20 and June 18, 2013, respectively, but have now been extended to June 19, 2013 (comments) and July 18, 2013 (reply comments). The extension was granted in response to a Motion filed by the National Association of Broadcasters on April 26, 2013.

Scott Flick of our office posted a detailed analysis of the Public Notice early last month. To refresh your memory, the Public Notice (jointly released by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau and General Counsel’s Office) was issued in response to FCC Chairman Genachowski’s request that FCC staff review the “Commission’s broadcast indecency policies and enforcement to ensure they are fully consistent with vital First Amendment principles.”

With respect to guidance for parties planning to file comments, the quoted language below from the Public Notice describes the matters on which the FCC is seeking comment:

  1. [W]hether the full Commission should … treat isolated expletives in a manner consistent with our decision in Pacifica Foundation, Inc., Memorandum Opinion and Order, 2 FCC Rcd 2698, 2699 (1987) (“If a complaint focuses solely on the use of expletives, we believe that . . . deliberate and repetitive use in a patently offensive manner is a requisite to a finding of indecency.”)?
  2. Should the Commission instead maintain the approach to isolated expletives set forth in its decision in Complaints Against Various Broadcast Licensees Regarding Their Airing of the “Golden Globe Awards” Program, Memorandum Opinion and Order, 19 FCC Rcd 4975 (2004)?
  3. As another example, should the Commission treat isolated (non-sexual) nudity the same as or differently than isolated expletives?

The Public Notice also states that parties are invited “to address these issues as well as any other aspect of the Commission’s substantive indecency policies.” As Scott pointed out in his analysis last month, this final question appears to open the door to a broader review of indecency doctrine than the FCC has engaged in for quite some time.

Given the controversy the FCC’s indecency policies have historically generated, you can expect to see plenty of comments filed on June 19 and reply comments on July 18 by parties on all sides of this issue. As the FCC moves toward new leadership with the departure of Chairman Genachowski, the FCC’s indecency enforcement policies could take some interesting turns.

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After nine months of rumors and uncertainty as to where the FCC is headed after last summer’s indecency decision by the Supreme Court in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. (which we discussed in this post), the FCC today released a very brief public notice that:

  1. Announces the FCC staff has disposed of over one million indecency complaints (which it states is over 70% of those that were pending at the FCC), “principally by closing pending complaints that were beyond the statute of limitations or too stale to pursue, that involved cases outside FCC jurisdiction, that contained insufficient information, or that were foreclosed by settled precedent.”
  2. Announces that the FCC will continue to actively investigate “egregious indecency cases.”
  3. Announces that it is opening up a new docket (GN Docket No. 13-86), and is seeking comments from the public in that docket as to whether the FCC should change its broadcast indecency policies, and if so, how. While not limiting the breadth of potential changes, the FCC specifically asks whether it is time to go back to the old policy of prosecuting on-air expletives only where there is “deliberate and repetitive use in a patently offensive manner,” or stick with the more recent policy of pouncing on a single fleeting expletive, the policy that led to the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision. The Public Notice also asks if the FCC should treat “isolated (non-sexual) nudity the same or different than isolated expletives?”
  4. Finally, emphasizing again the broad nature of the FCC’s proposed review, the Public Notice asks commenters “to address these issues as well as any other aspect of the Commission’s substantive indecency policies.”

The Public Notice indicates that comments will be due 30 days after the request for comments is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments being due 30 days after that.

While the timing of the Public Notice, just ahead of Chairman Genachowski’s (and Commissioner McDowell’s) announced departure from the FCC, is interesting, more interesting is the “spontaneous” look of the document. In an agency that can readily produce requests for comments that are hundreds of pages long, and on a subject that has produced reams of pleadings and precedent over several decades, the substantive portion of the Public Notice is but a few paragraphs long–a few paragraphs that open the door to a fundamental rethinking of the FCC’s approach to indecency.

The Public Notice therefore has the look of a document that was not long in the making, and which may have emerged as result of a departing Chairman beginning to move the ball forward for his successor. The process forward will likely be complex and arduous, and the ultimate result is anyone’s guess, but by at least launching the proceeding before his departure, Chairman Genachowski will absorb some of the political heat that could have otherwise fallen on his successor, while also challenging that successor to address an issue that has become a significant distraction and consumer of increasingly scarce FCC resources.

While also a result of its brevity, the lack of any “initial” or “tentative” conclusions by the FCC in the document gives the impression that the FCC may indeed be ready to commence a fundamental reexamination of indecency policy, and is not just going through the motions of collecting comments before proceeding on a largely predetermined route. It is not asking so much how it should proceed in light of the Supreme Court’s decision, but how it should proceed in general. For those who loudly proclaim that the FCC has failed in its duties as a “content cop”, as well as broadcasters struggling to figure out on a minute by minute basis what program content might cross the FCC’s invisible indecency line, a fresh look at the issue will be welcome. Whether this “reset” can resolve the many tough questions surrounding indecency enforcement is, however, another question entirely.

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In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that it would like to have as little to do with the FCC’s broadcast indecency policy as possible. Rather than the momentous ruling on the constitutional future of broadcast indecency enforcement that advocates on all sides of the issue had hoped for, the mighty sound of the Court punting on the constitutional issue reverbated throughout Washington this morning.

Faced with a pair of Second Circuit decisions finding the FCC’s indecency policy to be unconstitutionally vague and therefore chilling to broadcast speech, the Court ruled in an 8-0 vote that the FCC had failed to give adequate notice to Fox and ABC at the time of their assertedly indecent broadcasts that the FCC was going to start finding “fleeting indecencies” (verbal or visual) actionable and therefore subject to fines and other sanctions. As a result, the FCC rulings against both Fox and ABC were overturned by the Court. Having made that decision on the narrow grounds of “lack of notice”, the Court concluded that it had no need to go further and delve into the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency enforcement.

On a pragmatic level, the Court’s ruling seems to indicate that the appropriate “notice” on fleeting indecencies didn’t occur until the FCC announced its decision to begin prosecuting such indecencies in a 2004 case involving NBC and the Golden Globes Awards. As a result, broadcast stations facing indecency complaints (and delayed license renewals) for allegations of fleeting indecency should see those complaints dismissed by the FCC as long as the program at issue aired before the 2004 Golden Globes decision. Unfortunately, stations facing indecency complaints for programs aired after that 2004 decision may find that today’s Court ruling is irrelevant to them.

In fact, the Court went out of its way to make clear that it was not ruling on any issue but the “vagueness” in the FCC’s treatment of fleeting indecencies caused by the lack of notice of its change in enforcement policy. Despite noting that the FCC’s Golden Globes decision amounted to a change in the FCC’s indecency policy, the Court wrote that “it is unnecessary for the Court to address the constitutionality of the current indecency policy as expressed in the Golden Globes Order and subsequent adjudications.” The decision takes the extra step of stating that “this opinion leaves the Commission free to modify its current indecency policy in light of its determination of the public interest and applicable legal requirements. And it leaved the courts free to review the current policy or any modified policy in light of its content and application.”

The Court’s ruling therefore appears to be little more than a “reset” in which, with the limited exception of parties accused of airing fleeting indecency prior to 2004, broadcast stations find themselves in the exact same position as before this litigation started many years ago: unsure as to what content is or is not permissible, and with no additional guidance from the courts as to where the FCC may permissibly draw that line.

While, as I noted in an earlier post, the Supreme Court will usually avoid making a constitutional ruling if it can decide a case on other grounds, the Court’s hesitance to step into this fray is striking. Rather than eliminating the chilling effect on First Amendment speech by providing clarity as to what the FCC can constitutionally demand of broadcasters, the Court actually increased the chilling affect. Airing anything that a single member of the public might allege is indecent can lead to:

1. a prolonged indecency investigation by the FCC;
2. withholding of FCC action on a station’s license renewal application while the investigation proceeds;
3. withholding of FCC action on any application to sell or transfer that station; and
4. large fines, short-term renewals, and other FCC sanctions.

On top of all that, the Court has now undeniably added another contributor to the chilling effect:

5. years of expensive litigation to demonstrate that the FCC’s actions in sanctioning a station for indecency were administratively or constitutionally improper.

With all these chilling factors, only a foolhardy broadcaster would air content that could subject it to this process, even if it knew from the beginning that it would ultimately win in court. That is the very definition of an impermissible chilling effect upon First Amendment speech. The Second Circuit decisions leading to today’s decision clearly recognized that impact, and Justice Ginsburg’s Concurrence to today’s decision recognizes it as well. While agreeing with the Majority that Fox and ABC were not given adequate notice of the FCC’s changing indecency standard, her Concurrence goes on to note that Pacifica, the Supreme Court’s original 1978 decision upholding the FCC’s indecency policy, “was wrong when it issued. Time, technological advances, and the Commission’s untenable rulings in the cases now before the Court show why Pacifica bears reconsideration.”

Unfortunately, by putting that decision off until another day, the Court leaves the waters of FCC indecency enforcement as murky (and chilling) as ever. Given that the FCC now has a backlog of 1.5 million indecency complaints involving 9700 programs–a backlog that was left pending while the FCC awaited guidance from the Court–the Court’s unwillingness in today’s decision to engage on the real issue before it is bad for the FCC, bad for broadcasters, and bad for viewers and listeners.

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Having just returned from watching oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the highly anticipated case Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, I can tell you that the case is living up to its billing as one of the more interesting matters before the Court. In it, the Court will finally have the opportunity to address the constitutionality of the FCC’s current interpretation of its indecency restrictions on television and radio stations. Specifically, the Court is considering whether the Second Circuit was correct in deciding that the FCC’s indecency ban is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment by being so vague and amorphous as to deprive broadcasters of clear notice as to what is and isn’t permissible.

The underpinnings of the FCC’s indecency regulation come from the now-famous George Carlin (RIP) “Seven Dirty Words” monologue. During the monologue, Carlin used, among other words, the “F-word” and the “S-word” repeatedly, and verbally presented a number of sexual and excretory images. The monologue was aired by a radio station, a complaint was filed, and the FCC ultimately determined that the broadcast was prohibited indecency. The case eventually found its way to the Supreme Court as the 1978 Pacifica case where, in a narrow 5-4 ruling, the FCC’s indecency finding survived a First Amendment challenge. The Court stated that the FCC’s decision was constitutional largely because “broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children.”

For 25 or so years following the Pacifica case, the FCC exercised a light touch in enforcing its indecency ban, as evidenced by its statement that “speech that is indecent must involve more than an isolated use of an offensive word.” However, in 2004, the FCC changed its longstanding policy on the use of isolated expletives, finding that a broadcast could be indecent even when the use of an expletive was not repeated or a literal description of sexual activities was not included.

As previously discussed by Scott Flick here and here, the FCC’s effort to expand the definition of actionable indecency is at the heart of the case now before the Supreme Court. That case involves three separate incidents that were broadcast on TV between 2002 and 2003, each of which were found to be indecent by the FCC. The first two, the “fleeting expletives” incidents, occurred on Fox during the Billboard Music Awards when Cher used the “F-word”, and then Nicole Richie used the “S-word” and “F-word” a year later on the same program.

The third broadcast at the center of the case involved a 2003 ABC broadcast of an episode of NYPD Blue that included the display of a woman’s buttocks. In both the Fox and ABC cases, the Second Circuit concluded that the FCC’s current indecency enforcement policy is “unconstitutional because it is impermissibly vague” since broadcasters do not have fair notice of “what is prohibited so that [they] may act accordingly.”

During today’s oral arguments, there was a great deal of lively banter between the Justices and the attorneys on both sides of the debate. The U.S. Solicitor General, on behalf of the government, argued that broadcast stations must comply with the FCC’s indecency regulations as the price of holding a broadcast license and the privilege of “free and exclusive use of public spectrum.” Justice Kagan noted, however, that the government’s “contract theory” can only go so far when it comes to the First Amendment.

In response to the Solicitor General’s claim that television today is as pervasive as it has ever been, Justice Ginsburg pointed out that the major complaint the broadcasters have is that the “censor” here, the FCC, can act arbitrarily by saying it is okay to broadcast otherwise indecent language or scenes during Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, but that it is not OK to air such material during an episode of NYPD Blue. Later, Justice Kagan joked that it seems like nobody “can use dirty words except for Steven Spielberg.” While intended as a joke, the Justice would likely not be surprised that communications lawyers do indeed refer to the “Spielberg exception” in reviewing content before it airs.

In challenging the FCC’s regulations, counsel for the broadcasters noted that the FCC’s indecency policies had been working fine until the FCC “wildly changed their approach” in 2004 and that the current context-based approach is impermissibly vague. Of particular interest given that the pending cases all involve television broadcasts, when Justice Alito asked whether the broadcasters would accept the Supreme Court overruling Pacifica for purposes of television only and not for radio, the response in the courtroom appeared to be “yes”. Both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia appeared skeptical of the broadcasters’ arguments, with Chief Justice Roberts stating that “we, the government” only want to regulate “a few channels” and Justice Scalia remarking that the “government can require a modicum of values”.

While you can only read so much into oral arguments, the huge crowd and the media circus I saw when leaving the Supreme Court underscore the interest in, and the importance of, the Court’s ultimate decision in this case. Aside from the fact that Justice Sotamayor is recused from the case, and two Justices that voted against the FCC at an earlier stage of the case have since left the Court, the drama in this case has been dramatically increased given the strange bedfellows it could create among liberal and conservative Justices on the Court. Given that Justice Thomas is on record as criticizing the “deep intrusion in the First Amendment right of broadcasters” created by the FCC’s indecency policies, it is not out of the realm of possibility to see Justice Thomas siding with Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kagan (and maybe even Justice Kennedy) in finding that the FCC’s indecency policy is unconstitutional.

However, that result is hardly a given. We have no idea how Justice Kagan will rule given her short time on the Court, nor do we know yet whether Chief Justice Robert’s antipathy towards governmental paternalism — evidenced in the Court’s decision this past summer overturning a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors — might find voice in this case as well. While many issues polarize people based upon their political perspective, fans of the First Amendment tend to be found all along the political spectrum. How the case is framed is therefore critically important. Is this a case about protecting children from ostensibly harmful content, or is this a case about making broadcast television fit only for children during the hours when most adults watch it? On a less philosophical and more pragmatic level, what are the First Amendment implications of making broadcasters have to guess what content the government will conclude is inappropriate for their audiences? Broadcasters are hoping the the Court’s decision in this case will bring an end to those guessing games.

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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.

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As I wrote in April, the FCC decided after much delay to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review a pair of lower court rulings seriously challenging the FCC’s prohibition on indecent programming that airs before 10pm. Today the Supreme Court announced that it has agreed to hear the matter, setting up what could be the most important broadcast content case in decades.

The lower court decisions being challenged by the FCC involve the unintentional airing of isolated expletives on Fox during live awards programs, and an episode of NYPD Blue on ABC that showed a woman’s buttocks (the FCC-approved term for that part of the anatomy). That the underlying facts of these cases are so different (an accidental expletive on live TV versus scripted nudity in a dramatic program) increases the likelihood of a relatively broad indecency decision by the Court, as opposed to a narrow finding that the FCC was or wasn’t justified in pursuing a particular case based on the facts of that case.

The Court could ultimately support the government’s general right to police indecency while finding fault with the FCC’s current interpretation of how that should be done. However, the elephant in the room is whether it still makes sense for the government to assert that broadcasters have lesser First Amendment rights than all other media. The implications of the Court finding that broadcasters, a major source of news and information for most Americans, have First Amendment rights equivalent to newspapers would create regulatory ripples far beyond indecency policy. For that reason, the Court will likely think long and hard before making such a sweeping pronouncement.

Still, it is increasingly true that most audiences in the U.S. have ceased to draw a distinction between, for example, broadcast channels and cable/satellite channels. As they flip through the growing number of programming channels on their flat screen TVs, or increasingly watch Internet content over those same TVs, the government’s case for regulating the content of a small number of those channels grows more tenuous. The Supreme Court will now tell us whether it has grown too tenuous to continue.