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

Last month, we wrote about the US Court of Appeals throwing out the FCC’s decision to issue fines to broadcasters for the use of an occasional “fleeting expletive,” i.e. one of those impolite words that once in a while will slip onto a broadcast station’s airwaves, most usually in a live and unscripted program. The Court looked at the FCC’s decisions in this area and determined that they were inconsistent and did not provide the guidance that a broadcaster needs to determine what is and what is not permitted on the airwaves. Thus, the fines were thrown out as the Court found the FCC’s decisions to be arbitrary and capricious.  In an attempt to reinstate the FCC’s authority to regulate in this area, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, the author of the legislation which raised potential broadcast fines to $325,000 per violation of the indecency policy, last month suggested that he would introduce legislation that would overturn the Court action.  That proposal was preempted by Senate Commerce Committee, which earlier this month approved a bill introduced by Senator Rockefeller which would, very simply, state that the FCC had the jurisdiction to fine stations for a single word or phrase that they broadcast.  While the bill was approved by the Committee, the full Senate and the House of Representatives would need to approve the legislation before it could become law.

The proposal to give the authority back to the FCC to fine a station for an isolated utterance  is possible in theory, as the Court decision was based on the lack of consistency, clarity and guidance that the FCC provided to broadcasters about its standards, and not based on constitutional grounds.  However, reading the Court decision, one can see that the Court went out of its way to question the constitutional basis of the FCC regulation in this area. See our summary of the decision, here and here. A piece of Congressional legislation can reverse a Court ruling which was based on statutory interpretation, but it cannot reverse a decision that is based on a finding that a government action is unconstitutional. A constitutional amendment – which is obviously very rare –  is necessary for that.

Continue Reading New Legislation Proposed to Overturn Court Decision on Indecency – Let’s Worry About the Constitution Later