Supreme Court indecency decision

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.


Continue Reading June 19 Comment Date on Indecency Policies – What the FCC is Not Proposing to Do, No Matter What the Internet May Say

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