[Blogmeister’s Note: As we reported, after months of deliberation, the Supreme Court resolved the Fox/NYPD Blue indecency case by, um, not really resolving it. We were hoping that the Court would provide a clear and conclusive resolution of the longstanding tension between the First Amendment, on the one hand, and the FCC’s efforts to regulate “indecency”, on the other. Instead, the Court snuck out the side door, choosing to ignore the First Amendment and rely instead on a very narrow application of the Fifth Amendment. So the First Amendment question lives on, to be decided some other day years from now.
The Court (in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Kennedy) held that the FCC could not penalize Fox or ABC for the particular broadcasts at issue (those would be a couple of awards shows in which presenters let slip with one or two “fucks” or “shits” and an episode of NYPD Blue featuring a very brief glimpse of Charlotte Ross’s tush). While that bottom line ruling is no doubt a relief to Fox and ABC, it does little for the rest of us. Or does it?
For insight into what the Court’s decision means going forward, we called on the Swami, Kevin Goldberg. In response, the Swami sent us a gazillion-page opus whose central motif was based on a classic – and entirely on point – catchphrase from one of the pinnacles of 1980s cinema. That’s not what we had in mind, so we have pared his response down here. Devout Swami followers who would like a complete copy of Kevin’s disquisition in its (more or less) original form may request copies through the “comments” option, below.]
Blogmeister: So Swami, when you reported on the oral argument in the Fox case, you counted the votes as 5-3, maybe 4-4. The actual vote turned out to be 8-0. In the words of Mike LaFontaine, “Hey! Wha happened?”
Swami: I may have missed on the vote count, but I nailed the result – both in terms of the victor and, more importantly, the narrowness of the holding.
Why was I so sure that the Supremes would keep it tight?
Several justices have historically demonstrated uneasiness with the notion of removing regulations they perceive as necessary (or at least useful) in maintaining some sense of morality or decorum on the public airwaves. No big surprise there – I have repeatedly noted in earlier posts that the Court has been cautious about language and decorum. (For instance, they frown on use of the actual words – fuck, shit, etc. – in the courtroom or in their opinions. They opt instead for euphemisms like “f-word” and “s-word”.) In particular, it was always highly unlikely that Justices Roberts, Scalia and Alito were going to sign on to a decision opening the airwaves to what they felt would be a cacophony of indecency.
Furthermore, this Court has always been somewhat cautious when it comes to First Amendment cases (as I have discussed in previous posts). I have detected little sentiment on the Roberts Court for actions that completely overturn longstanding laws based on facial First Amendment challenges. And, truth be told, the Court has historically not shown any such sentiment. In fact, the longstanding principle of “constitutional avoidance” holds that the Court will not take on a constitutional issue when it can dispose of a case via other means.
So it’s not surprising that the Court as a whole may have been reluctant to push the button on the First Amendment thermonuclear option when a narrower alternative was available.
Blogmeister: But the “narrower” alternative here was still a constitutional provision – the “due process” clause of the Fifth Amendment. How does that fit into any “constitutional avoidance” notion?
Swami: Sure, it’s still the constitution, but look at the differences. Assume that everybody agrees that the FCC should not have penalized the Fox and ABC broadcasts at issue here. To get to that result through the First Amendment, the Court would have had to hold that the FCC’s indecency policies – or at least some significant subset of them – are barred by the First Amendment. That would open up a whole host of follow-up questions that would almost invariably take the Court back to Pacifica. By contrast, the Fifth Amendment approach the Court used allowed them to find that, whether or not the indecency policy is consistent with the First Amendment, the two broadcasters (Fox and ABC) didn’t get the due process notice to which they were entitled under the Fifth Amendment. Net result: the penalties meted out to those two broadcasters are tossed without anybody having to come to grips with the First Amendment arguments.
This is, of course, very frustrating for those of us who have been waiting patiently for some conclusive ruling by the Supreme Court as to the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency policy. When it agreed to hear the Fox case this time around, the Court specified that the only question to be considered was
[w]hether the Federal Communications Commission’s current indecency-enforcement regime violates the First or Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Many of us read that to refer to the overall indecency regime as a whole, not merely the particular application of that regime to two particular parties. We obviously guessed wrong.
(This is a good time to point out another possible reason that the Court decided this unanimously and narrowly. It’s a hypothesis advanced by UCLA professor Eugene Volokh. Volokh theorizes that the recusal of Justice Sotomayor left the Court in serious danger of a 4-4 split on the merits if it ruled on the overriding First Amendment issue. That would have been the worst possible result, leaving the Second Circuit decision in place but providing no Supreme Court precedent. The narrow decision was therefore a tactical means of getting to a result favored by all justices without forcing the Court through a divisive and ultimately deadlocked First Amendment analysis.)
Blogmeister: But that doesn’t mean that the First Amendment problems with the FCC’s indecency policy have gone away, does it?
Swami: Absolutely not. That issue isn’t going away. The Court’s unwillingness in the Fox case to address that issue squarely, for once and for all, means we’re almost certain to be back here several years from now (maybe just in time for another election day).
Blogmeister: OK, so here we are, with a very narrow, largely analysis-free Supreme Court decision based on Fifth, not First, Amendment grounds – a decision that appears to apply only to these three broadcasts. What comes next?
Swami: That’s unclear. According to the Supremes, “[t]he judgments of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit are vacated, and the cases are remanded for further proceedings consistent with the principles set forth in this opinion.” So the Second Circuit’s broad, sweeping (and, to many us, welcome) opinion holding the indecency policy to be inconsistent with the First Amendment has now been tossed by the Supremes. As a result, the FCC’s indecency regime, as a whole, remains in place.
I’m guessing the Court is also telling the Second Circuit that it should simply and quickly issue an order reversing the FCC’s actions for the reasons stated by the Supremes. Since the Second Circuit obviously feels strongly about this case – you can tell that from its first two opinions – I suppose it’s possible that the Circuit might use the opportunity of a remand to signal how broadly it plans to read the Supreme Court’s decision and whether the Second Circuit will continue to be the “go-to” circuit for indecency cases. And you can take the Swami’s word for it – there will be more indecency cases. As the Supreme Court expressly observed, its decision leaves the courts “free to review the current policy or any modified policy in light of its content and application”.
The more intriguing question, though, is how the FCC will react to this decision. It obviously just dodged a bullet. Does it tweak its indecency policy, does it massively overhaul that policy, does it scrap the policy entirely, or does it just leave it the way it’s been for the last six-seven years? In light of the Commission's traditional behavior, I suspect it’ll be the last option – the FCC as Decency Police will continue to pound the beat – but you never know. After all, we now have Justices Thomas and Ginsburg on the record saying that they seriously question whether the indecency policy could withstand First Amendment scrutiny. At some point the FCC may be able to take a hint.
Blogmeister: And beyond that, what does the Supreme Court’s decision mean for indecency cases pending at the FCC?
Swami: That, too, remains to be seen. In a perfect world, the Commission would go through all the million or more still-pending indecency complaints and divide them into two groups: (a) complaints involving “fleeting expletives” and (b) all others. Then it would take all the complaints in Group (a) and subdivide them into two categories: (i) those that occurred prior to the 2004 Golden Globes decision that announced an end to the Commission’s previous “fleeting expletive” policy (i.e., the policy that let such instances slide without penalty), and (ii) those that occurred after. I get the need to draw that latter line from Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. He makes a point of saying that “[the] regulatory history, however, makes it apparent that 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” (emphasis added).
So once all complaints involving fleeting expletives or nudity that occurred before the 2004 Golden Globes decision are identified, the Commission would promptly dismiss them, since they would all be essentially identical to the Fox/NYPD Blue situations. All other complaints would be left for routine processing.
But with the sheer volume of pending complaints, it’s hard to imagine that the Commission is in a position even to begin such a triage process.
And let’s not forget the fact that, even if the FCC goes ahead with indecency complaints which may survive the Supreme Court’s decision, and even if it ends up issuing fines in those cases, the government will be hard-pressed to collect any fines in cases older than five years. That’s because of 28 U.S.C. §2462, a federal law that requires that lawsuits by the Feds to enforce a civil fine, penalty or forfeiture be initiated within five years after the underlying claims accrue. The Communications Act provides that, if a licensee hit with a fine simply declines to pay, the FCC’s only recourse is to sue the licensee for payment – and until that suit is finally resolved in favor of the FCC, the Commission can’t use the licensee’s alleged violence in any way that might prejudice the licensee. So any case that would be subject to the five-year statute of limitations in 28 U.S.C. §2462 could (and, in an ideal world, should) all be summarily tossed regardless of the Fox decision.
Blogmeister: When you look into your crystal ball, what do you see happening on the indecency front?
Swami: The Court told the FCC expressly that the Commission “remains free to modify its current indecency policy in light of its determination of the public interest and applicable legal requirements.” And it told the courts that they are “free to review the current policy or any modified policy in light of its content and application”.
So we could see the FCC revise its policy. Or we could see the FCC stick to its guns, applying the current policy against another broadcaster in one of those nonfleeting expletive or post-Golden Globe cases. If that broadcaster then brings challenges the constitutionality of the entire scheme, that challenge could work its way up the courts, finally returning to the Supreme Court, maybe just as we round into yet another Presidential election year.
Or not. Concentrate and ask again later.