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

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by the FCC of the "fleeting expletives" case, where the Second Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the FCC actions fining stations for isolated incidents where a profanity was uttered on the air in a live program.  The cases stem from the Golden Globes and Billboard Music Awards, where over-exuberant winners let slip one of those words that you are not supposed to say on TV.  The Court of Appeals found that the FCC had not justified its departure from prior Commission decisions where such conduct was not sanctioned.  The Court also suggested that the Commission’s decisions did not give broadcasters enough guidance as to when the use of such words was permissible, and when it was prohibited.  We have written previously about this case a number of times, including here and here.  Should the Court determine that the FCC was justified in acting as it did, this may leave the FCC open to taking new actions in the indecency area – such as the suggestion that one Commissioner recently made that indecency enforcement in connection with video delivered to mobile phones should be explored.

 A couple of words about some of the commentary written about this case.  First, while many stories have stated that this is the first indecency case to reach the Supreme Court in 30 years since the famous Seven Dirty Words  ( or the Pacifica) case, in fact there have been several other more recent cases that have dealt with the indecency issue – though not in the broadcast context.  Cable and Internet indecency rules have been adopted by the FCC or by Congress, and usually overturned as not constituting the least restrictive manner of preventing children from being exposed to "indecent" speech – speech which is constitutionally protected (as opposed to obscenity which has no protection as it has no socially redeeming significance) – but from which children can be sheltered.  However, in the cable and Internet cases, the regulations have been overturned because there were other less restrictive means of limiting children’s access to the content, e.g. through filters or restrictions on access to specific channels or websites.


Continue Reading Supreme Court Agrees to Review Fleeting Expletives Case – Could FCC Extend Indeceny to Mobile Media?