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

The term "Super Bowl" is a trademark owned by the National Football League, and it is protected very aggressively. What does that mean?  The biggest no-no of all is to use the term "Super Bowl" in any advertising or promotional announcements that are not sanctioned by the NFL.  This prohibition includes sweepstakes and contests as well.  Advertisers pay high licensing fees to the NFL for the right to use the term "Super Bowl" in their advertising.  You will almost certainly hear from the NFL’s attorneys if you use the term in advertising without explicit authorization from the NFL.  So no "Super Bowl sales" in your ads – and don’t refer to your station as the "Super Bowl Authority" in your promotional statements.  These restrictions explain why you often hear it referred to as "The Big Game."  But this restriction does not mean you cannot utter the words on air under any circumstances. 

There is a court-created trademark concept known as "nominative fair use."  Under this concept, trademarks can be used when necessary under certain conditions.  First, the mark must not be readily identifiable in any other way.  For example, you do not have to refer to the Pittsburgh Steelers as "the professional football team from Pittsburgh."  Secondly, you can only use the mark to the extent necessary to identify it.  Repeated gratuitous use would cross the line – for instance if you repeatedly state that your station is "the place to hear everything about the Super Bowl."  And third, you cannot do anything to suggest a false connection or sponsorship arrangement.   What does this really mean?  It means that DJs can use the term "Super Bowl" editorially in discussing the game on air (but not in a way to imply that the station has a connection to the game, or not in a repeated way analogous to a station slogan or positioning statement).  It means that news stories about the game can refer to the "Super Bowl."  The NFL will not consider such uses to be trademark infringement so long as the use is reasonable.  In fact, from an editorial perspective, the NFL appreciates some hype about the game to attract viewers and general consumer interest in the game.


Continue Reading Don’t Use “Super Bowl” in an Ad Without Permission – But How About in Other Programming?

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?

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