In a decision released today, the US Supreme Court upheld the FCC determination that fleeting expletives in the televised broadcasts of the Golden Globes and Billboard Music Awards violated the FCC’s indecency rules. In this case, called Federal Communications Commission v Fox Television Stations, Inc., the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which had found the FCC decision to be arbitrary and capricious. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, determined that the FCC had adequately justified its departure from prior decisions in determining that it could sanction a station for a single "F-word" or "S-word" broadcast on that station outside of the 10 PM to 6 AM safe harbor. However, the Supreme Court specifically declined to rule on the constitutionality of the indecency finding, as the Second Circuit had not made its decision on that ground. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Second Circuit for further consideration, recognizing that the constitutional issues with the FCC’s enforcement policy might well be back before it again, "perhaps in this very case."
Thus, this decision was made on a very narrow basis – that the FCC had justified its decision to change its prior policies to find that a single fleeting expletive was actionable. Decisions of administrative agencies like the FCC are given great deference by the Courts, as long as the agencies provide a rational basis for their decision, and as long as their decisions do not violate their statutory mandate or the constitution. Here, the Court found that the Commission had provided a rational explanation of its departure from prior precedent., and had otherwise provided an explanation of its decision, so the Court was willing to find that the FCC had the power to make the decision that it did, overturning the Second Circuit’s conclusion that the decision had not been rationally justified.
The Supreme Court is often unwilling to make a sweeping decision when it can decide a case on narrow grounds. Here, the Second Circuit had decided the case solely on the basis of its perception that the FCC has not provided a rational basis for its decision. The Second Circuit had a discussion of the constitutionality under the First Amendment of the FCC’s decision, and stated that it questioned whether the decision met constitutional muster, but because it threw out the FCC decision on the administrative law question, it did not finally decide the constitutional issue. Thus, the Supreme Court, despite urging from the broadcasters in the case, declined to rule on the constitutional issue – sending it back to the Second Circuit for further consideration.
There were several concurring and dissenting opinions in this case – and we will write more about those discussions at a later time. But, for now, while the Court has spoken, expect to hear more about the FCC’s indecency policies in subsequent decisions, as the final word on the constitutionality of the policies has not yet been spoken.