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June 22, 2012

High Court Tosses Out Indecency Cases, Finds FCC Didn’t Give Proper Notice to Broadcasters

By: Michelle Cohen

On June 21, 2012, in FCC v. Fox Television Stations Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to apply its indecency standard to brief broadcasts of nudity and “fleeting expletives.” But the Court relied not on the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantees but rather on the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause.

The Court held that Fox and ABC were not given fair advance notice that their broadcasts, which occurred prior to the announcement of the new indecency policy, were covered. This retroactive application violated their due process rights.

Broadcasters were hoping for a much broader First Amendment ruling that would have permanently hamstrung efforts by the agency to police indecency on the air. Instead, although a $1.4 million fine against ABC and its affiliates and a declaration by the FCC that Fox could be fined as well were both overturned, the agency remains free to create new indecency policies and case law under 18 USC 1464, which bans the broadcast of any” obscene, indecent, or profane language.”

In ABC’s case, the transgression was showing a seven-second shot of an actress’s buttocks and the side of her breast on NYPD Blue in 2003, and in Fox’s case, it was some isolated indecent words uttered by Cher and Nicole Richie on awards shows.

Prior FCC policy stressed the difference between isolated indecent material (which was not punished) and repeated broadcasts (which resulted in enforcement action). The Court held that Fox and ABC did not have sufficient notice that these brief moments, which occurred before the new policy went into effect, could be targeted.

The U.S. government tried to argue that a 1960 statement by the FCC gave ABC notice that broadcasting a nude body part could be contrary to the prohibition on indecency. The Supreme Court said “no dice,” as FCC had in other, later decisions declined to find brief moments of nudity actionable. If the FCC is going to fine ABC and its affiliates $1.24 million, it had better provide clear, fair notice of its indecency policies.

Since the case doesn’t affect the enforceability of the FCC’s current standard, as applied to current (rather than past) broadcasts, however, broadcasters still live in fear of the possibility of big fines levied against them for a couple of obscenities or a few seconds of nudity.

We agree with longtime public interest advocate Andrew Schwartzman, who said of this ruling, “The decision quite correctly faults the FCC for its failure to give effective guidance to broadcasters. It is, however, unfortunate that the justices ducked the core 1st Amendment issues. The resulting uncertainty will continue to chill artistic expression.”

The courts can certainly review challenges to the FCC’s indecency standards, and related issues will continue to come before the courts, including the issue of whether the current indecency standard violates the First Amendment rights of broadcasters and whether any changes the FCC may make will survive First Amendment scrutiny.

Meanwhile, with this case resolved, the FCC can finally move forward with a backlog of indecency complaints pending before it. FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell said in response to the Supreme Court ruling that there are now nearly 1.5 million such complaints, involving 9,700 television broadcasts, and that “as a matter of good governance, it is now time for the FCC to get back to work so that we can process the backlog of pending indecency complaints.”

Michelle Cohen

At Ifrah Law, Michelle’s practice focuses on helping clients establish powerful and enduring relationships with their customers and prospects while remaining compliant with state and federal law governing privacy and advertising laws and regulations.