U.S. Supreme Court Sides with Broadcasters in Indecency Cases

Today, the Federal Communications Commission’s broadcast indecency policy received, at most, a glancing blow from the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In a sharply limited decision, the Court, by an 8-0 vote (with Justice Sotomayor not participating) and for the second time since 2009, avoided difficult First Amendment questions about the FCC’s authority to restrict coarse language and nudity on broadcast television. In 2009, the Court held that the FCC’s adoption of the so-called “fleeting expletives” policy for broadcast indecency was neither arbitrary nor capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. This time, in  Federal Communications Commission, et al. v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., et al, the Court found that this policy, as applied to Fox and ABC, was impermissibly vague in violation of these broadcasters’ due process rights. The Court did not reach the First Amendment issues, choosing instead to vacate and remand the decisions of the 2nd Circuit that struck the FCC’s broadcast indecency policies on First Amendment grounds.

The Fox and ABC cases, which I’ve written about previously, involved challenges brought by broadcasters to the FCC’s broadcast indecency regulations. The broadcasters argued, among other things, that the Court should overturn its precedent in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation granting the FCC limited authority under the First Amendment to regulate broadcast indecency. While the Court today left the First Amendment issues open, Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, found instead that the FCC “failed to give Fox or ABC fair notice prior to the broadcasts in question that fleeting expletives and momentary nudity could be found actionably indecent.” As a result, according to the Court, the FCC’s policy was impermissibly vague with respect to the broadcasts at issue here. In a brief concurring opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “[t]ime, technological advances, and the Commission’s untenable rulings in the cases now before the court show why Pacifica bears reconsideration.”

Some initial observations:

1)      The FCC’s “Fleeting Expletive” Policy Still Exists. The decision explicitly does not address the constitutionality of the FCC’s current indecency policy “as expressed in the Golden Globes Order [issued March 18, 2004] and subsequent adjudications.” This Order adopted the “fleeting expletives” policy and apparently remains in force. The Court found that the FCC remains “free to modify its current indecency policy in light of its determination of the public interest and applicable legal requirements.”

2)      Timing of the Alleged Violation Is Critical.  The Fox and ABC broadcasts occurred prior to March 18, 2004. According to the Court, “the Commission policy in place at the time of the broadcasts gave no notice to Fox or ABC that a fleeting expletive or a brief shot of nudity could be actionably indecent; yet Fox and ABC were found to be in violation.” As a result, timing of a disputed broadcast is critical for purposes of determining the precedential effect of this decision on other cases.

3)      The decision is limited in scope on indecency. The Court treated “fleeting expletives and fleeting nudity” as part of the same FCC policy articulated in the 2004 Golden Globes Order. This determination enabled the Court to dispose of both cases via the same vagueness rationale, thus avoiding the First Amendment issues.

4)      The Court’s decision gives clues on how it could rule on the Janet Jackson case. The opinion does not address the FCC’s pending Petition for a Writ of Certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court in connection with the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” case. The FCC is seeking review of a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which found that the Commission acted arbitrarily and capriciously, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, when it fined CBS stations for violating the indecency policy. The FCC requested that its petition “should be held for [the Fox case] and then disposed of as appropriate in light of the Court’s decision.” In this regard, like the broadcasts for ABC and Fox in today’s decision, the Janet Jackson broadcast occurred prior to the March 18, 2004 release of the 2004 Golden Globes Order. As a result, “fair notice” is again at issue, particularly now that the Court has explicitly determined that the Commission’s policy extends to “fleeting nudity.” Given that the nudity depicted in NYPD Blue lasted about seven seconds and the "wardrobe malfunction" was clocked at less than one second, the Commission should have concerns about the impact of today's ruling on the Janet Jackson case.

5)      Processing the backlog of indecency complaints is a priority.  Big practical issues remain. For example, the FCC has a massive backlog of indecency complaints filed against broadcasters.  Such complaints often slow processing of applications and delay the closing of transactions. For now, observers must watch and wait to see how the FCC decides to proceed.  Expect the FCC to comb through the backlog of complaints and dismiss those cases built on “fleeting expletives” with respect to broadcasts that occurred prior to March 18, 2004.  The FCC could take the opportunity to dismiss those complaints that it deems to not implicate the agency’s current indecency policy.

In light of these developments, don’t expect the floodgates to open for the broadcast of coarse language or brief nudity on your local station any time soon. There are significant questions about how the Commission will enforce its indecency policies going forward. The hardest questions on broadcast indecency and the First Amendment will continue to be debated, but there’s every reason to expect that one day the Court will be asked to address them yet again.  In the meantime, stay tuned.