In light of the recent decision upholding the FCC’s right to sanction licensees for violations of the FCC’s Indecency rules for "fleeting expletives" in the Golden Globes and Billboard music awards, i.e. isolated profanity on the airwaves, the Supreme Court also remanded the Janet Jackson case to the Court of Appeals.  The one sentence remand (see page 2 of the list of orders) was so that the Court of Appeals could consider the impact of the fleeting expletives case on the Court of Appeals decision throwing out the FCC’s fine on CBS for the fleeting glimpse of Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl half-time program.  The Third Circuit Court of Appeals that heard the Janet Jackson case had reached a decision very similar to the Second Circuit’s decision in the Golden Globes case – finding that the FCC had not justified its departure from a policy of not fining stations for fleeting instances of prohibited speech or pictures, where the words or pictures were isolated and their broadcast was not planned by the station.  Given that the Supreme Court has remanded the case to the Court of Appeals, the lower court will now need to consider the same constitutional issue that the Second Circuit will consider in the Golden Globes case – while the FCC may not have violated administrative procedures in justifying its actions, are the FCC’s indecency rules so vague and enforced in such a haphazard manner that they chill free speech or are otherwise unconstitutional?  Based on an analysis of the various concurring and dissenting opinions in the Golden Globes case, the Supreme Court might well decide the constitutionality issue against the FCC.  Could the final ruling in these cases have an impact far beyond the indecency question?

Two of the Davis Wright Tremaine attorneys involved in some of the indecency cases have written this memo, summarizing the Supreme Court decision in the Golden Globes case – pointing out how Justice Thomas seemed to imply that the constitutional basis of the FCC decision was suspect – even though he sided with the majority in finding that the FCC was justified in its administrative decision to find violations.  Justice Thomas seems ready to come down against the FCC on the constitutional issue were it to be squarely presented, questioning whether the Red Lion decision, justifying lesser First Amendment protections for broadcasters than other media outlets based on frequency scarcity, has continuing vitality.  Were this precept underlying the regulation of broadcast content to be undermined, the justification for much FCC content regulation could be in doubt.


Continue Reading Janet Jackson Case Sent Back to Court of Appeals – Could There Be An Even Greater Impact on Broadcast Regulation?

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. 


Continue Reading Supreme Court Upholds FCC Process in Deciding Fleeting Expletives Were Indecent, But Sends the Case Back to Court of Appeals to Decide Constitutionality

Today’s morning newscasts were filled with the stories of the passing of George Carlin – a comedian and satirist who effectively wrote the indecency regulations that most broadcasters abide by – without the FCC ever having had to adopt the regulations that he attributed to them.  In the broadcast world, Mr. Carlin was probably best known for his routine about the Seven Words that You Can Never Say on TV.  When that routine was aired by a New York radio station, and heard by a parent who claimed that he had a child in his car when the routine came over his radio in the middle of the day, the resulting FCC action against the station resulted in appeals that ended in the Supreme Court which, in its Pacifica case, upheld the right of the FCC to adopt indecency rules for the broadcast media to channel speech that is indecent, though not legally obscene, into hours when children are not likely to be listening.  But what this case and the FCC ruling did not hold are perhaps more misunderstood than what the case did hold.

First, the case was about "indecency" not "obscenity."  Many of this morning’s newscasts referred to the Pacifica decision as being an Obscenity decision.  Obscenity is speech that can be banned no matter what the time and place, as it is speech that is deemed to have no socially redeeming value.  Indecency, on the other hand, is a far more limited concept.  Indecent speech is speech that is constitutionally protected – it has some social significance such as the social commentary clearly conveyed by the Carlin routine.  It cannot be constitutionally banned.  But the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s decision in the Pacifica case that, because of the intrusive nature of the broadcast media, it can be limited to hours where children are not likely to be in the audience.  Hence, the FCC has a "safe harbor" that allows indecent programming between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM, when "obscene" programming is never allowed on the air.


Continue Reading George Carlin – Writing the Indeceny Rules the FCC Never Did

This week, legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives to make a single use of an expletive on a broadcast station subject to sanctions from the FCC.  This parallels legislation that was introduced in the Senate this summer, about which we wrote, here.  The point of this legislation is to overturn the decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit which held that the FCC could not levy indecency fines on stations for airing a single isolated "fleeting expletive". As we wrote when the Senate Bill was introduced, the Second Circuit decision overturning the FCC’s fines was technically based, not on constitutional issues, but instead on the fact that the FCC had not rationally defended the distinctions that it made as to when to impose fines for the use of an expletive, and when to allow the use of the expletives without sanction (as in the airing of Saving Private Ryan).  The Court also faulted the Commission for not providing guidelines as to what was indecent and what was that were clear enough to alert a broadcaster as to what was permitted and what was not.  When a decision is based on an administrative failure to rationally justify its decision, Congress can pass a law providing that justification.  Here, that would give the FCC permission to fine a broadcaster for the use of a single expletive.  If the decision was constitutionally based, finding that the regulation of the use of fleeting expletives was unconstitutional, then the ability of Congress to pass a law permitting FCC action that the Court found was unconstitutional is severely limited.

However, while not basing the decision on constitutional grounds, the Second Circuit decision did go out of its way to question the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency enforcement, but deciding that it did not need to decide the issue of constitutionality as it had already thrown out the FCC fines.  While the Second Circuit passed on that issue, another court may well reach the constitutional question in the near future.  On September 11, the Third Circuit, the same Court which invalidated many of the FCC’s 2003 liberalized multiple ownership rules, heard arguments on the FCC’s $550,000 fine imposed on the CBS owned-and-operated television stations for the Janet Jackson breast-baring Super Bowl incident.   CBS, represented by an attorney from our firm, argued that the FCC’s indecency rules are unconstitutional.  The Court seemed engaged in the issue, according to press reports, asking many questions.  As the briefs have been filed and the arguments made, the Court decision could come at any time.  Sometimes these decisions can be released quickly, though at other times the final decision can take many months to be written.  Broadcasters will have to wait for this further clarification.


Continue Reading Congress Tries to Overturn Second Circuit While Third Circuit Hears Janet Jackson Indecency Case, and “The War” Is Censored