With the Super Bowl soon to kick off in Houston, the New York Times just ran a story (here) recalling that during the last Super Bowl held in Houston, the notorious “wardrobe malfunction” occurred. The article highlighted the NFL’s concerns since then in picking halftime performers. To readers of this blog, that incident
The deadline for comments on the FCC’s indecency rules was extended until June 19, confirmed in a notice published in the Federal Register this past week. Given this extension, it is worth reviewing what the FCC proposed to do in this proceeding, as there is a significant amount of misinformation circulating in certain publications and in rumors floating around the Internet about the scope of the proceeding and the FCC’s intent in launching its inquiry. In preparation for a recent interview that I did with a talk show on a Midwestern radio station, I was pointed to articles that suggested that the FCC was proposing to allow swearing and nudity on broadcast television, and how that is eliciting tens of thousands of comments from the public (see, for instance the articles here and here). Some other articles and blog posts have gone further, making it sound like the FCC was looking to turn the broadcast airwaves into some sort of adult movie paradise, as if someone at the FCC had woken up one day and thought that such a relaxation of the rule would be a good idea. While these claims make for interesting reading, the truth is much more boring, and demonstrate that the FCC has little choice but to ask for these comments.
As we wrote here, the FCC’s inquiry is initially limited – principally asking for comments on the FCC’s policy on fleeting expletives – those times, usually in a live broadcast, where a single profane word or phrase slips out onto the airwaves. The Commission also invited comments on other aspects of the rules but, other than the fleeting expletives (and a reference to fleeting, nonsexual nudity – like the bare butt that was the subject of the NYPD fine that caused the Commission much consternation in the Courts), that’s all that the Public Notice specifically addresses. While certainly more issues may arise, they arise in this context of dealing with these fleeting incidents, not as part of an attempt to turn broadcast TV into some X-rated video service. And the issues are not being tackled as an attempt to corrupt public morality, but instead because the FCC has to clarify these rules after the Supreme Court found last summer that it had not adequately justified the more aggressive posture that it took on indecency in the last decade.
We recently wrote about the FCC’s request for comments on how to enforce its indecency policy, and how to deal with the backlog of hundreds of thousands of complaints pending at the FCC. The FCC has now set the dates for comments in this proceeding – with initial comments due on or before May 20…
The FCC’s indecency policy has been in limbo since last year’s Supreme Court decision determining that the Commission’s fines on broadcasters for fleeting expletives had not been adequately explained before being imposed. On Monday, the FCC took a step to clarifying that policy by asking for public comments on what it should do now. Should it formally adopt the policy that bans even fleeting expletives, and explain that policy to broadcasters to meet the issues that the Supreme Court raised? Or should it go back to the policy that had been in place before – the decision in the Pacifica case (known more popularly as the "seven dirty words" case, about which we wrote here) – where there had to be repetitive or deliberate use of expletives before the FCC would act. Comments will be due 30 days after this notice is published in the Federal Register, and replies 30 days after that.
The Commission stated that the public could comment on other aspects of its indecency enforcement as well, without specifying any specific areas of inquiry. One issue that would seem to be foremost in the FCC’s inquiry, but one which was not mentioned at all, is the constitutionality of the policy and its enforcement. This was an issue that was twice teed up to the Supreme Court, and both times that Court managed to avoid the issue by deciding cases before it on procedural "due process" grounds – essentially that the FCC had not given sufficient warning before adopting fines or that the FCC otherwise had not followed its own procedures when it changed its policies to a stricter enforcement standard. As the Court never finally resolved the constitutionality issue, it may well be back before the Court again – especially were the FCC to decide to pursue the stricter standard applied by the last Commission.
The FCC’s indecency rules have, in recent months, twice been declared unconstitutional by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit – essentially finding that the FCC’s policies imposed unconstitutional restrictions on speech as they did not give broadcasters any way of determining what was permitted and what was prohibited. After seeking several extensions of time to determine whether to seek Supreme Court review of the Court of Appeals decisions, the FCC today released its Petition for Certiorari to the high court. The Supreme Court need not hear this request for review though, given its previous decision on these rules (which we wrote about here), and the high publicity and public interest in this subject, the case could quite well end up on the schedule.
This appeal deals with two cases. First, it seeks review of the decision of the Court of Appeals throwing out the fleeting expletive admonitions given to Fox network stations for the broadcast of two Billboard Music Award shows that contained expletives, one by Cher and one by Nicole Richie. Following the precedent set by the Golden Globes case (where Bono used the "F word"), the Commission held that the use of one of these single words, even if not used in a sexual context, were inherently indecent. The second case covered by the Supreme Court petition was for the depiction of bare female buttocks in the program NYPD Blue – resulting in $27,500 fines on a number of ABC stations. This decision was also overturned by the Court of Appeals.
As we wrote earlier this week, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Tuesday struck down part of the FCC’s indecency rules, finding that the rules were too vague and had an undue chilling effect on broadcasters. DWT’s First Amendment experts have now taken a closer look at the Court’s decision…
The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today struck down the FCC’s indecency rules, finding that the rules were so vague as to not put broadcasters on notice of what programming was prohibited and what was permitted. Today’s decision was reached following a remand of this case to the Second Circuit by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s decision did not resolve all questions about the FCC’s rules, instead only deciding that the lower court’s prior decision voiding the rules was not justified. The prior Second Circuit decision had not been decided on a constitutional basis, but instead it was based on the Court’s perception that the FCC had failed to justify its departure from prior FCC precedent that had excused broadcasters from liability for fleeting expletives. The Supreme Court found that the departure from prior precedent was justified. The Supreme Court left open the issue of whether the rules were constitutional, and sent the case back to the Second Circuit for further consideration. In today’s decision, the Second Circuit takes up the constitutional review left open by the Supreme Court, and has determined that the vagueness of the FCC’s guidelines and the inconsistency in its decisions chilled the First Amendment rights of broadcasters in violation of the First Amendment.
The Court, in reaching its decision, looked at a number of the Commission decisions on indecency which have arisen since the Commission started its enhanced enforcement of these rules in 2003. After reviewing the cases, the Court felt that the FCC could not logically articulate when the use of certain prohibited words would be punished. In one passage, the Court asks how the FCC can find that the broadcast use of expletives in the fictional movie Saving Private Ryan were permissible as the words were essential "to the realism and immediacy of the film experience for viewers", yet at the same time find that these same words did not rise to that same level of importance when spoken by real people in the PBS documentary The Blues. The Court then cited numerous instances where broadcasters felt that their speech had been chilled – often refraining from airing significant programming for fear of FCC fines. For instance, the Court cited one station that refused to cover a political debate as a candidate had previously used a forbidden word in a prior debate, and another case where stations did not run a documentary about emergency workers and the 9-11 tragedy as the documentary contained some actual footage from the Twin Towers, where emergency workers used some of those forbidden words.
In the past several weeks, broadcast indecency has been back in the news – seemingly almost on a daily basis. First, there was the story about Bob McDonnell, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor who, seemingly inadvertently, dropped the f-bomb, perhaps as a result of tripping over his tongue during a news interview on a news radio station in Washington. Then came the extensive coverage of New York City TV newscaster Ernie Anastos who, during on-air banter with the weather man, also let the f-word fly – in what was apparently not a slip of the tongue, but perhaps a slip of the brain, where the anchor must have thought that he was somewhere other than on the set of a live TV newscast. And then this past weekend, an actor on Saturday Night Live let the word fly during the late night program. These incidents come on the heels of the FCC releasing its statistics on complaints that it had received in the first quarter of this year (reflecting many indecency complaints in the last month), while the Commission has asked the Court of Appeals for the opportunity to reexamine its decision in the Janet Jackson case to determine if any violation of the indecency rules was "willful." What does all of this activity mean?
The recent well-publicized on-air slip-ups demonstrate how the fleeting expletive, which have formed the basis of a number of recent FCC cases, including the Supreme Court decision upholding the FCC’s authority to decide to change its prior holdings and issue fines for such utterances (but leaving open the constitutional questions as to whether the FCC regulation is consistent with the First Amendment), can no longer hide from public examination. In the past, fleeting expletives were just that – fleeting. If there was an on-air slip up, people in the audience may have done a double take, trying to decide if they really heard what they thought that they heard. Often, there would be a shrug of the shoulders and the event would pass. Not so in today’s electronic world. Now, when a politician or a TV announcer slips up and let’s one of those you-can’t-say-that-on-TV words slip, the listening public quite often has the opportunity to check out YouTube or some other website to confirm what they did or didn’t hear. As a recent press article about the NY anchor observes, these events become viral. A similar observation was made today about the SNL skit. And, when they become viral, the FCC often hears about it in the form of a complaint. As the FCC does not usually monitor stations themselves looking for indecency, but instead only takes action where a member of the public complains, the viral preservation of these incidents have no doubt resulted in far more FCC complaints that would have otherwise occurred – certainly more than have occurred in the past.
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.
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.