On Monday’s edition of Morning Joe on MSNBC, host Joe Scarborough, while recounting a story about Obama Chief of Staff designate Rahm Emanuel, dropped the "F-bomb" – seemingly without even realizing that he did it.  He genuinely looked shocked after being told that he had not used the euphemisms that we’re using here, and apologized profusely, apologies that were even posted on the MSNBC website later in the day.  While the cast joked about the FCC fines that would be imposed, and discussed the legal ramifications about this incident, none seemed to recognize that cable – even basic cable – has not been subject to the same indecency regulation as over-the-air television, even though most basic cable networks generally observe the same standards observed by broadcasters to avoid offending their audiences (and perhaps inviting new attempts to regulate their operations.

Cases have generally held that cable, being a pay medium invited into the household, and with filtering technologies that allow particular channels to be blocked, does not have the same intrusive nature as the broadcast medium which comes in free to any house with a TV set and an antenna.  And, until recently when the V-Chip was introduced, over-the-air television did not have the same ability to block access to adult content.  It is interesting that this incident occurs only one week after the Supreme Court held its oral argument on the fleeting expletive case deciding if the inadvertent, unscripted use of a profanity should be subject to a fine.  If nothing else, this incident shows that mistakes happen even in the most unexpected places – who would expect that the host of a morning television program would slip up and let fly with an improper word?  This incident, and the cases before the Supreme Court, do not involve intentional, repeated use of profanity, like the George Carlin routine about which we wrote here, but instead just a fleeting isolated use of one of those "bad" words.  The FCC simply cannot demand perfection from its licensees without demanding perfection from society at large, which is clearly beyond the FCC’s jurisdiction. 

Continue Reading Joe Scarborough Drops the F-Word On Morning Joe – Lucky it Was on Cable

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

Just as the FCC issued its order to implement the statutory increase in the amount of indecency fines, raising them to $325,000 per violation (see our comment, here), its enforcement of its indecency policy may be dead in its tracks.  A three judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in a 2 to 1 decision released today, rejected the FCC’s actions against a number of television networks for broadcast indecency.  The FCC actions were in the context of "fleeting utterances," i.e. the use of specific words that the FCC determined were indecent whenever they were used.  The Court rejected the FCC decision as being arbitrary and capricious, as the FCC decisions overturned without sufficient rational explanation years of FCC precedent that had had held that the isolated use of these words was not actionable.  The FCC actions were sent back to the FCC for further consideration to see if the Commission could craft a decision that provided a rational explanation for this departure from precedent.

However, this may prove to be impossible.  While the Court’s decision was based on the FCC’s failure to provide a rational basis for its departure from precedent, the Court also said that it was difficult to imagine how the FCC could constitutionally justify its actions.  The Court pointed to the inconsistent decisions of the FCC – fining stations for the use of the "F-word" and the "S-word" in isolated utterances during awards shows, and when used in the context of a program like PBS’  The Blues, but finding that the same words were not actionable when used in Saving Private Ryan or when used by a Survivor contestant interviewed on CBS’ morning show.  In the Survivor case, the Court indicated particular confusion, as the Commission went out of its way to say that there was no blanket exclusion of news programming from the application of its indecency rules, but then it proceeded to find the softest of news – the Survivor cast-away interview – as being of sufficient importance to merit exclusion from any fine.  The Court felt that these decisions were so conflicting that a licensee would not be able to decide whether a use was permissible or not – and that such confusion, leaving so much arbitrary discretion in the hands of government decision-makers as to where to draw lines between the permissible and impermissible, would not withstand constitutional scrutiny.  It would have a chilling effect on free speech – and could be enforced in an arbitrary manner that could favor one point of view over another.

Continue Reading Second Circuit Throws Out FCC Indecency Fines