If you have the vague sense that you might like to file comments in response to the bizarre invitation for comments relative to the FCC’s indecency policies, but you’re still trying to figure out exactly what those policies are in the first place, you're in luck. The General Counsel’s office and the Enforcement Bureau have extended the deadlines. Comments are now due by June 19, 2013 and reply comments by July 18. Unfortunately, the public notice announcing the extensions does not shed any more light on the indecency inquiry. As previously reported here, the inquiry posed on April Fool’s Day is, at best, cryptic and unilluminating, so much so that it’s difficult to imagine that anything useful could possibly come from it. But for those of you who may be champing at the bit to toss in your two cents’ worth, you now have a little more time within which to hone your prose.
Indecency public notice hits the Federal Register.
Earlier this month we reported on an odd public notice soliciting comments about the FCC’s indecency policy. That notice has now been published in the Federal Register – but that doesn’t mean that the notice makes any more sense now than it did when it first appeared.
The title of the notice still says that the FCC is seeking “comments on adopting egregious cases policy”, but that’s the only time the term “egregious cases policy” shows up. As a result, it’s far from clear exactly what we’re supposed to be commenting on. You would think that, if the FCC does have some “egregious cases policy” currently in effect – which is what the full text of the public notice released on April Fool’s Day indicated – the Commission might let us all in on the precise details of that policy so that we might be able to comment on it at least quasi-intelligently. Apparently not.
As we noted in our initial post, the utility of any record likely to be compiled in response to the notice’s nebulous invitation for comments is dubious. How, after all, is a commenter supposed to organize his/her/its comments in a coherent and useful way? And how can the Commission’s staff be expected to process those comments? Without any apparent context or direction, it’s hard to see what the staff can do with them.
If this is how the Commission proposes to deal with the indecency issue, that issue is likely to be with us, unresolved, for many years to come.
In any event, the Federal Register publication establishes the deadlines for comments in response to the notice. Comments are due by May 20, 2013, and reply comments by June 18.
Indecency Alert: New Unannounced "Egregiousness" Standard Now Apparently in Effect, But More Changes May Be On the Way, Eventually
Odd public notice also touts herculean accomplishment: summary dismissal of “more than one million” pending indecency complaints
In a public notice that surely ranks among the most bizarre any of us are likely to see, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau and General Counsel have made three startling announcements about the Commission’s broadcast indecency policy. According to the notice, for the last seven months or so the Enforcement folks have been applying a new – but not formally announced – standard of “indecency” which is not subject to any official definition, as far as we can determine. And while the Enforcement Bureau and GC both commit themselves to continuing to implement that undescribed “standard”, they have now initiated, in a semi-comic way, an inquiry into some possibly significant changes to major elements of the Commission’s indecency policy.
This could have been an April Fool’s Day prank, but we’re guessing it wasn’t.
To get ourselves oriented here, let’s all agree that the FCC’s decades-long effort to regulate “indecency” is a Big Deal in communications jurisprudence. Where FCC-related issues seldom get to the Supreme Court, indecency has been there, twice, in the last four years. Few subjects have triggered the same level of hand-wringing, saber-rattling bloviation on the part of various commissioners, elected officials and others over the last decade.
In its most recent review of the FCC’s indecency policy, the Supreme Court managed to dodge a First Amendment challenge to that policy by focusing instead on a Fifth Amendment challenge. In particular, in June, 2012, a unanimous court reminded the FCC in no uncertain terms that, if it wants to enforce rules or policies proscribing the broadcast of “indecency”, the Commission must provide broadcasters with clear prior notice about just what constitutes “indecency” in this context.
In that case, the FCC was attempting to prosecute a couple of licensees who had aired “fleeting expletives” or “fleeting nudity”, i.e., incidental slips of extremely limited duration. At the time of those broadcasts, the FCC’s policy had been to ignore such “fleeting” material. But reacting to the Outrage that was the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show – featuring a half-second, long-distance glimpse of (gasp!) much of Janet Jackson’s right breast – and emboldened by the firestorm of political reaction to that glimpse, the Commission had since decided that even the merest soupçon of “indecency” should be prohibited. The licensees argued, among other things, that they had not been given adequate notice of the FCC’s indecency standards.
To be sure, the Supremes allowed the FCC to continue to regulate “indecency” – but the Court’s clear and unmistakable take-home message to the Commission was that, in so regulating, the FCC would have to provide affected regulatees clear notice of what constitutes “indecency”.
That was in June, 2012. According to the recent public notice, three months later Chairman Genachowski “directed” the Enforcement Bureau to “focus its indecency enforcement resources on egregious cases”.
There are at least two massive problems with that.
First, whatever Genachowski may have told the Enforcement folks, he didn’t do it in any officially public way – that is, in a way that might provide clear notice to potentially affected broadcasters. We searched various archives for any indication that the Genachowski-directed enforcement standard might have been formally announced – say, in a public notice, or a declaratory order, or even in a published statement from the Chairman’s office. We came up empty-handed, although our colleague, Peter Tannenwald, did manage to find three trade press articles – one in Broadcasting and Cable, one in TVWeek, one in TheWrap.com – that referred to a statement credited to Genachowski, albeit without specifics as to how anybody might track that statement down to confirm it (much less understand it).
Second, even if the Chairman’s “direction” to the Enforcement Bureau was accurately reported, what are we left with? Nothing more than the general notion that, apparently, the FCC’s enforcement machine will now be focused primarily on “egregious cases”. Do you have any idea what that means? Neither do we.
All we know is that, for the past seven months or so and going forward into the foreseeable future, the “new” indecency standard has centered and will center on the essentially undefined concept of “egregiousness”. Even if that concept had been clearly defined – which it hasn’t – it’s probably safe to say that, before the joint Enforcement/General Counsel notice on April 1, 2013, many, if not most, broadcasters were unaware of the new “egregiousness” notion at all.
Um, isn’t that precisely the type of thing the Supreme Court warned the Commission not to do?
But not to worry, because in their public notice, the Enforcement Bureau and General Counsel are now asking for our thoughts on “whether the full Commission should make changes to its current broadcast indecency policies or maintain them as they are.”
Can we all agree that it’s odd for two subordinate offices within the Commission to suggest that the full Commission – which is, of course, the boss of those two offices – should change its rules and policies? Ordinarily, the Commission itself decides whether (and if so, how) it might want to effect such changes. What are we to make of the public notice on that score?
It’s probably a safe assumption that somebody on the Eighth Floor approved the public notice, so let’s figure that the FCC really is thinking about changing its approach to indecency in some way. What might it have in mind? Here’s the totality of what the public notice has to say about that:
[S]hould the Commission treat isolated expletives in a manner consistent with our decision in Pacifica Foundation, Inc., Memorandum Opinion and Order, 2 FCC Rcd 2698, 2699 (1987) (“If a complaint focuses solely on the use of expletives, we believe that . . . deliberate and repetitive use in a patently offensive manner is a requisite to a finding of indecency.”)? Should the Commission instead maintain the approach to isolated expletives set forth in its decision in Complaints Against Various Broadcast Licensees Regarding Their Airing of the “Golden Globe Awards” Program, Memorandum Opinion and Order, 19 FCC Rcd 4975 (2004)? As another example, should the Commission treat isolated (non-sexual) nudity the same as or differently than isolated expletives? Commenters are invited to address these issues as well as any other aspect of the Commission’s substantive indecency policies.
The first three sentence-questions suggest that the primary change contemplated here involves the problem of “fleeting” indecency. But the final sentence opens up for discussion the entire range of indecency-related issues.
Curiously, the headline of the public notice claims that the FCC is "seek[ing] comment on adopting egregious cases policy". Since the notice does not provide any definition of that "policy", and since the specific request for comments (quoted above) doesn't even mention that "policy", it's hard to know what to make of the headline.
In any event, the utility of any record likely to be compiled in response to the notice's nebulous invitation is dubious. How, after all, is a commenter supposed to organize his/her/its comments in a coherent and useful way? And how can the Commission’s staff be expected to process those comments? Without any apparent context or direction, it’s hard to see what the staff can do with them.
So what’s the point of the public notice?
Actually, the notice includes one other component, possibly intended to distract the reader while burnishing the reputation of the soon-to-be-departed Chairman. That component consists of one sentence (and a part of the headline) touting the fact that, since last September, the Commission has supposedly reduced its backlog of pending indecency complaints “by 70%”, which the notice quantifies as “more than one million complaints”. Truly a herculean accomplishment!
Now that’s a bit of good news. Anytime the agency is able to clear out a backlog to that extent, some applause is warranted, so we can all give it up for the Commission on this point.
According to the notice, the 1,000,000+ complaints that have been tossed involved mainly “complaints that were beyond the statute of limitations or too stale to pursue, that involved cases outside FCC jurisdiction, that contained insufficient information, or that were foreclosed by settled precedent”. Maybe we’re missing something, but shouldn’t complaints “outside FCC jurisdiction” or “contain[ing] insufficient information” or “foreclosed by settled precedent” have been tossed even before they got into the FCC’s system?
Let's do some math.
If the staff has had 212 days (i.e., September 1, 2012-March 31, 2013) to determine that more than 1,000,000 complaints could be summarily tossed, that means that the staff managed to handle more than 4,700 complaints a day – assuming that the staff was working seven days a week. At eight hours per working day, that in turn means that the staff was grinding through those complaints at nearly 600 per hour, or 10 per minute – one every six seconds. (If we assume that the staff was working 24/7, that number would drop to a paltry 195 or so per hour, still more than three per minute.)
Which prompts us to ask: how was the backlog allowed to balloon as it had? If it took only a matter of seconds to determine that a complaint could be dismissed, why wasn’t that done a long, long time ago?
And speaking of the passage of time, complaints that “were beyond the statute of limitations” should not have taken even seconds to identify. They could have been automatically thrown out as soon as the relevant statute of limitations date came and went.
So while we do sincerely appreciate the clearing out of 1,000,000+ complaints, we’re not sure why the FCC might think that it's entitled to any particular kudos for that achievement.
That’s especially true in view of the fact that the public notice touting that supposed achievement is totally silent with respect to the effect that the backlog had on broadcasters. Licensees who were the subject of pending complaints did not get their licenses renewed, and weren’t permitted to sell their stations, until the complaints were resolved . . . unless, of course, the licensee was willing to enter into a “tolling agreement” by which it would waive a number of its rights. And if a licensee was trying to sell all of its broadcast interests and exit the business, it was required to pony up a big wad of cash for an “escrow arrangement”. One hopes that any licensee who might have been required to enter into such a deal because of one or more of the now-dismissed complaints has been expressly and immediately released from the terms of any such deal.
An accompanying apology might be nice, too.
The public notice is going to be published in the Federal Register. Once that happens, comments in response to the questions posed about indecency regulation will be due within 30 days, and reply comments within 60 days. Check back here for updates.
Eight years after the half-second exposure, the Janet Jackson case is over – but the indecency debate lives on.
The Janet Jackson case is, for all intents and purposes, finished.
With a one-sentence order stuck toward the end (at page 13, to be precise) of a routine 15-page listing of mundane orders, the Supreme Court has stuck a fork in the long-running indecency case. Specifically, the Supremes have declined the FCC’s invitation to review the most recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which had twice found fatal flaws in the FCC’s treatment of the Jackson case.
But, as has been customary with just about everything surrounding L’Affaire Jackson, even the Supreme Court’s final order included some unexpected flair.
When the Supremes decline to review a case (which they do in the vast majority of cases that get filed with the high court), the action is normally reflected in a simple nine-word order – “The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.” That means that at least six of the justices saw no reason to hear the appeal. The final order in the Jackson case followed that course.
But in the Jackson case, Chief Justice Roberts bothered to write a two-page concurring opinion questioning whether the Third Circuit had really gotten it right. The Third Circuit’s decision was based on the notion that the half-second exposure of Ms. Jackson’s right breast was essentially the same as a “fleeting expletive”. As to that analogy, Roberts says “I am not so sure.” As he sees it, images are different from words. To hammer that point home, he quotes the prosaic proverb, “a picture is worth a thousand words”.
But, given the Court’s decision in FCC v. Fox, Roberts acknowledges that the distinction is in any event immaterial: “[i]t is now clear that the brevity of an indecent broadcast – be it word or image – cannot immunize it from FCC censure.”
This underscores the narrowness of the Fox decision and the continuing vitality of indecency regulation, at least in the Chief Justice’s mind. While the bottom line in Fox was that Fox and ABC got off the hook, that happy result was based on the technicality that the broadcasts in question had occurred before the Commission had announced, in 2004, that fleeting expletives (and, by extension, fleeting images) were taboo. The Court’s opinion left wide open the question of whether the FCC could, consistently with the First Amendment, penalize such broadcasts occurring after the 2004 announcement. It also left open the question of whether the FCC could penalize other instances of non-fleeting language (or images), regardless of whether they were aired before or after the 2004 announcement.
Roberts’s separate opinion clearly suggests that he, for one, believes that the FCC’s indecency policies can, should and do live on post-Fox.
On the other hand, adding still more flair to the Court’s denial of review in the Jackson case, Justice Ginsburg also weighs in with a concurring opinion. It consists of one sentence, which we reproduce here in toto:
The Court’s remand in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., 567 U. S. ___ (2012), affords the Commission an opportunity to reconsider its indecency policy in light of technological advances and the Commission’s uncertain course since this Court’s ruling in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U. S. 726 (1978).
That, of course, echoes her concurring opinion in Fox in which she announced her strong belief that the Court’s first and only (thus far) endorsement of indecency regulation (in Pacifica) was “wrong”. (Memo to Justice Ginsburg: Could you try not to sugarcoat it next time?)
So there you have it: a court that is still split on whether the government can constitutionally regulate broadcast indecency. We’ve had to live in the shadow of that uncertainty since the 1978 Pacifica decision. It looks like we’ll be living with for some time to come.
He’s ready for his close-up. Are you?
You’ve read his stuff, and you’ve probably wondered – who is this Man of Mystery they call the Swami? Now you can hear him and see him as he expounds, with customary eloquence, about the Supreme Court decision in FCC v. Fox Television Stations. The Swami, Kevin Goldberg, is now available to you on the small screen (probably the one you’re reading this on). He quotes Cher. He quotes Bono. He quotes Nicole Richie. He does it all. Is this a great country or what?
Kevin’s online appearance comes to you thanks to our good friends at LexBlog, the legal-focused blogging platform that hosts CommLawBlog. He sat down for a short Skype-based interview with LexBlog’s Colin O’Keefe, answering a few questions regarding the history of the case and the issue, the Court’s decision (and why it was unanimous), and the likely impact on broadcasters. This is part of LexBlogs “LXBN TV”, a cool service that brings blog posts to life.
You can see all 12 minutes and 48 seconds of the interview here.
[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.
Supremes toss FCC's Fox, NYPD Blue actions for lack of notice.
It looks like we may all be going on another spin around the Indecency Merry-Go-Round. The Supreme Court has vacated the Second Circuit’s most recent decisions in the Fox and NYPD Blue cases and shipped them back down for further proceedings. The Supremes’ decision has just been released, so we have not yet had time to get it into the hands of the Swami for full-tilt swamification. Look for a post on that shortly.
In the meantime, a very quick read of the Court’s decision – which was 8-0, with Justice Ginsberg issuing an interesting concurring opinion and Justice Sotomayor sitting this one out – indicates that our earlier prognostication got the correct bottom line (even if we didn't get the justice count quite right). While the decision to vacate the lower court’s rulings, which favored the broadcasters, would ordinarily be seen as a victory for the FCC, that is not the situation here. Instead, the Supremes have determined that neither Fox nor ABC had adequate notice of exactly what the FCC’s indecency policy prohibited. Accordingly, the Commission’s determinations penalizing Fox and ABC for their broadcasts have now been set aside.
But, as we predicted, the Court stopped short of even thinking about reconsidering its 1978 Pacifica decision.
In fact, it assiduously avoided even coming close to Pacifica. Pacifica, of course, upheld – against a strong First Amendment attack – the FCC’s general authority to regulate broadcast indecency. This time around, the Court is relying on the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause (which, for our purposes here, assures adequate “notice”). Hence, Pacifica lives on.
But for how long? That’s where Ginsburg’s terse concurrence is particularly intriguing. It reads, in its entirety, as follows:
In my view, the Court’s decision in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U. S. 726 (1978), was wrong when it issued. Time, technological advances, and the Commission’s untenable rulings in the cases now before the Court show why Pacifica bears reconsideration. Cf. FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., 556 U. S. 502, 532–535 (2009) (THOMAS, J., concurring).
Now bear in mind that, the last time the Fox case rolled through the Supremes (back in 2009), Justice Thomas said pretty much the same thing (as Ginsburg's citation to Thomas’s 2009 Fox concurrence acknowledges). That makes two justices, on polar opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, ready to pound a stake into the heart of Pacifica.
Check back here later for a more complete analysis by Swami Kevin Goldberg.
On January 10, the Swami and the Blogmeister took a field trip to the Supreme Court to catch the Fox/ABC indecency argument. Here’s their report.
[Blogmeister note: Last year the Supreme Court agreed to consider the constitutionality of the FCC’s broadcast indecency policies in the context of two cases, one involving comments made during awards shows aired by Fox Television, the other involving an episode of NYPD Blue on ABC. Check our previous posts for more background. The argument before the Supremes was held on January 10. Kevin “the Swami” Goldberg and Blogmeister Harry Cole attended.]
Blogmeister: I think we can agree that, from the perspective of a broadcaster, the argument was disappointing. After the Second Circuit’s sweeping endorsements of First Amendment rights for broadcasters in Fox and ABC, it was a let-down to hear the far more cautious tone of the Supreme Court Justices.
Swami: Disappointing – maybe. I also thought “demoralizing” at first – but on further reflection, I don’t think this is a lost cause by any means.
Blogmeister: Interesting. But before we ask you to gaze into your crystal ball and come up with a prediction of the vote, how about your thoughts on the overall arguments? For instance, what happened to the FCC’s interest in protecting children’s innocent ears from the evils of vulgar words? Pacifica was based in large measure on precisely that interest, but there was virtually no discussion of that at all during the argument. Instead, the government harped repeatedly on the notion that broadcasters have been given the use of their spectrum for free by the government, and they have derived “billions and billions of dollars” from that spectrum.
Swami: The government was claiming that, in return for the supposedly free spectrum, broadcasters should be happy to cough up some of their constitutional rights. I have a real hard time with that notion, particularly because even the Pacifica court didn’t seem to go down that road. But maybe the government is looking to move away from the “protect the kids” justification in light of the Supremes’ Brown decision last term. (In that case, the Court threw out a California statute restricting the sale of violent video games to minors. The Court held that the state hadn’t demonstrated that such games cause harm to minors. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, observed that “disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression”.)
Blogmeister: Another thing. How about the Fox lawyer’s willingness to throw the radio industry under the bus? Noting that Pacifica involved a radio broadcast, Justice Alito asked whether there is a basis to distinguish between radio and TV for purposes of indecency regulation. Counsel for Fox seemed happy to say that radio is different and, thus, on its own to argue that the FCC’s indecency policies can’t be applied to radio.
Swami: That was pretty striking. But for my money, the highlight of the argument came when ABC’s counsel pointed out to the Justices that the Supreme’s courtroom itself features images of bare breasts and buttocks. As counsel proceeded with his argument, he apparently noticed that Scalia was looking around the court to see if he could see those images. Counsel happily pointed them out to the Justice, noting that counsel hadn’t focused on them before. “Me neither”, responded Scalia. And, as a service to our readers, here’s one of those images (depicting Philosophy, from the north wall frieze):
Blogmeister: OK, enough of the color commentary. Let’s get down to the real nitty-gritty. How do you figure the Court’s going to come out here? Are you sticking with your prediction from last June?
Swami: I still see Justices Kagan and Ginsburg voting in favor of the broadcasters. Not a big surprise – at least to me – since I had them both in this camp when I made my initial predictions last year. Both Kagan and Ginsburg expressed serious concern about the “appearance of arbitrariness about how the FCC is defining indecency in concrete situations”, as Ginsburg put it. I thought it was noteworthy, too, that Justice Ginsburg – an opera buff – pointedly asked whether televising a nude scene from The Makropulos Affair (a Czech opera – who knew? – apparently misidentified in the official transcript as “Metropolis”, at least according to some commentators) would run afoul of the FCC.
Blogmeister: I just moved The Makropulos Affair way up in my Netflix queue.
Swami: Not to be confused with Fritz Lang’s great “Metropolis”, the classic 1927 sci-fi film.
But enough about movies, operas, Kagan and Ginsburg. On to the other side of the Court, where it seems equally clear that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia are two solid votes for the FCC. Both surprised me a little, since they’re key switches from my predictions last summer. I figured that Scalia would set aside his morality-tinged aversion toward indecent speech in favor of his longstanding interest in protecting even controversial speech. Also (as I pointed out last year), his opinion in the Brown case sure suggested that he doesn’t buy into the “we must protect the kids” rationale that underpinned the 1978 Pacifica decision. And for Roberts, I thought he would stick with the position he staked out in Snyder v.Phelps and United States v. Stevens. I probably shouldn't have trusted my gut on either one.
During the argument, both Roberts and Scalia clearly indicated that they believe that broadcasters have a higher responsibility to society, and that the government is entitled to insist on what Scalia termed a “certain modicum of decency”. It looked like they were buying into the government’s new contract theory – i.e., since the government is supposedly giving broadcasters their lucrative spectrum for free, the government can exact something in return. Seeming to step out of his role as judge and into the role of regulator, Roberts said that “[a]ll we are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where you are not going to hear the S word, the F word. They are not going to see nudity.” Shoot, simply his use of “S word” and “F word” alone shows you where he stands. Ditto for Scalia, who used similar terms to refer to “shit” and “fuck”.
Blogmeister: Here’s an interesting factoid: the only two times the Supreme Court has considered whether the FCC can penalize the broadcast of certain words, none of those words has been spoken during the oral arguments. That’s more than two hours of people arguing about the use of a small handful of particular words, and those words never make an appearance. (Check it out: recordings of the arguments in Pacifica and Fox are available on-line.)
Maybe I’m missing something, but if nobody even says what the words are – and everybody instead pussy-foots around them – that suggests that the words themselves have some inherent mystique that makes them different from all other words. Different and, therefore, subject to different treatment by the government. But words are just words, collections of letters and sounds, with no force in and of themselves. So a failure even to mention what the words at issue are could be seen as a major concession that they really are different. Roberts’s and Scalia’s references to “the S word” and “the F word” reflect their apparent belief that one should not utter the words even in a dispassionate judicial forum in which those words are the very focus. That’s obviously bad news.
Swami: Agreed. (And if you’ll notice: I don’t share the Justices’ aversion to using the words themselves. Before we move on with my predictions, I should just come out and admit that, if I were on the Supreme Court, I’d vote to overturn the indecency regulations.)
So if I’m right on those four, the count’s at 2-2. Since Justice Sotomayor has recused herself from the case – presumably because she was sitting on the Second Circuit when both Fox and ABC rolled through on their way to the Supremes – it will take only four votes, total, to avoid reversal of the decisions below (both of which favored the broadcasters). Where are the other justices?
As is his custom, Justice Thomas didn’t open his mouth during the argument – he hasn’t asked a question during the last five and a half terms – so there’s nothing new there to analyze. I’m sticking with my earlier prediction: not only will he rule for the broadcasters, but he'll actually go the farthest in doing so. He may even take the position that both Pacifica and Red Lion should be abandoned by the court.
Blogmeister: For the neophytes among our readers, we should explain that “Red Lion” was the 1969 case in which the Supremes held that the First Amendment rights of broadcasters can be abridged by the FCC because spectrum is scarce. Tossing Red Lion would be a huge development in communications law. When the Fox case passed through the Supreme Court back in 2009, Thomas issued a separate opinion observing the “doctrinal incoherence” of Pacifica and Red Lion and expressing an openness to reconsidering both. The Swami may be onto something here.
Swami: Right, and that might seem very good for the broadcasters. But what if Thomas can’t get a majority of his colleagues to join him? He could end up just writing another separate opinion, which might not be useful in getting the indecency issue resolved once and for all. (More on that later.)
Anyway, Justice Alito seems pretty solid back the other way. In my view, of all the justices he’s the least friendly toward First Amendment rights. He did little during oral argument to make me believe that he’ll change that in this case. He pointed out that the number of over-the-air viewers is shrinking and asked, “why not let this die a natural death?”
Blogmeister: So whether or not there’s a First Amendment violation, he’d be content to just stand aside and let nature take whatever course it might? That’s some First Amendment sensitivity.
Swami: Yeah, that’s why I see him as a vote for the FCC here, which (if I’m right about everybody else so far) still leaves us at 3-3. But don’t forget that we’ve also got Justices Breyer and Kennedy to consider. Fortunately, I had both in the pro-Fox camp last summer, and the oral argument didn’t fully move me off that.
Let’s start with Kennedy. He seemed skeptical about the government’s claim that there may be some symbolic value in imposing different indecency standards on broadcast TV as opposed to, say, cable. He also showed the most interest in the availability of the V-Chip, which could mean that he sees that as a non-regulatory answer to any possible concerns about children’s access to indecent programming. But he also expressed concern that overturning the indecency rules would inevitably open the door to the all kinds of vulgar television programming. He’s a question mark here.
Blogmeister: Which makes Justice Breyer crucial.
Swami: And, unfortunately, Breyer seemed confused at times, particularly when he asked the government’s lawyer to walk him through the procedural posture of the case. He also seemed surprised that the ABC bare buttocks case was there at all, as if the Court should instead have been looking only at the Fox fleeting expletives case.
To me, the key to Breyer is his apparent concern about whether the Court really has to, or should, overrule Pacifica. He seemed to me uncomfortable about holding Fox liable for the fleeting expletives, but possibly more willing to let the FCC penalize the nudity in NYPD Blue. Importantly, he seemed to feel that both results could be reached using the existing Pacifica standard.
Blogmeister: That doesn’t surprise me. The Supreme Court traditionally is reluctant to overrule itself. And this may be a good example of why. Pacifica was decided back in 1978. It involved an extreme set of facts – the George Carlin monologue at issue involved 12 minutes of the classic “seven dirty words” repeated over and over. The Court in Pacifica emphasized that its decision there was limited to the facts of the case. In his crucial concurring opinion Justice Powell stressed that that narrow focus would be “conducive to the orderly development of this relatively new and difficult area of law” by the Commission and the courts.
The problem is that that “orderly development” hasn’t happened.
Instead, over the intervening three-plus decades the Commission has gone back and forth, up and down, this way and that way on indecency. And, most importantly, the “standards” it has invoked over the years have not been reviewed by the courts. (That’s the result of a number of factors, including the Communications Act’s odd provisions concerning judicial review of forfeiture decisions.)
It’s as if, 34 years ago, the Court held that it’s OK for the government to penalize folks driving at 100 miles per hour, but at the same time declined to say whether the government could penalize drivers at slower speeds – leaving that question to be decided in later cases through the “orderly development” of the law. No such later cases get to court. Then, 34 years later, the government tries to fine somebody for driving at 20 mph, and that guy challenges the fine, asking the Court (among other things) to throw out the 34-year-old decision as wrong. In such circumstances, the Court might figure that it could reverse the 20 mph conviction without having to toss out the earlier 100 mph ruling.
Breyer seemed to be thinking that, maybe, even if Pacifica was and remains good law, the Commission’s Fox and ABC decisions can’t be justified.
Swami: So maybe he’ll write his own separate opinion laying that out. But if he does believe that the Second Circuit reached the correct result, even if for the wrong reasons, the bottom line would be good for broadcasters. Unless the FCC gets five votes to reverse the result below, that result would stand. So if Ginsburg, Kagan, Thomas and Breyer – and possibly Kennedy – all agree that the Second Circuit’s reversal of the FCC was correct, broadcasters should prevail.
Let’s go on the record: the Swami says that the split among the justices will most likely be 5-3 (affirming the Second Circuit) or 4-4. That’s just a count as to which sides the justices take. Almost certainly we’ll see a split court with multiple opinions and, probably, no single opinion reflecting the views of a majority of justices.
Blogmeister: And while that’s not a bad thing, it’s not optimal. Multiple opinions, including separate concurrences from Thomas (going the furthest, possibly urging that Red Lion be overruled) and/or Breyer (staying the narrowest, probably looking to preserve Pacifica) would leave everybody in a very frustrating position: we would still not know precisely what programming the Commission can constitutionally prohibit as “indecent”. We’d be back on the quest for “orderly development” of this “difficult area of law”. We can all hope that some such “orderly development” might occur, but based on the last 34 years of that same quest, it’s hard to be optimistic.
Swami: Which kinda puts us right back where we were before all this right? In a place where the broadcasters lack any real certainty as to when they’ll be punished.
Mark your calendars, all you First Amendment buffs. The Supreme Court has scheduled the oral argument in FCC v. Fox Television Stations for Tuesday, January 10, 2012. (Do we need to remind any of our readers that the question before the Court in Fox is nothing less than the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency policy?) The Court’s calendar notation doesn’t specify a time, but the odds are the argument will crank up about 11:00 a.m. – although if you don’t get your place in line by 7:00 a.m. or so, there’s a good chance you won’t get in. Supreme Court arguments are open to the public, free of charge, but seating is limited and tends to fill up fast. For more information about attending the argument, check out the Court’s helpful and informative webpage. As we did the last time the Supremes, the FCC and Fox got together for a free and frank exchange of views on the topic of broadcast indecency, CommLawBlog plans to have a team of observers at the argument. Check back here after the argument for reports from the front.
In re-run of 2008 Janet Jackson decision, FCC extends its losing streak in court of appeals indecency cases
In a long-awaited if anticlimactic decision, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has again sided with CBS in its seven-years-and-counting fight with the Commission over the 2004 Super Bowl® half-time show. For those of you with short memories, that was the show that featured Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake and (for a spectacularly noteworthy appearance lasting 9/16 of a second), Ms. Jackson’s right breast, seen from a considerable distance.
While this most recent decision in CBS’s favor may be cheered by many (if not most) broadcasters, it is limited in scope. As a result, the impending Supreme Court show-down in the Fox Television case – already briefed, with an argument likely to be scheduled for early 2012 – remains the primary focus of attention among First Amendment aficionados.
But even so, the Janet Jackson case cannot be ignored. This was, after all, the situation that re-kindled the FCC’s interest in strict regulation of “indecency” on the airwaves.
To review the recent history of the case, we go back to 2008, when the Third Circuit first reversed the FCC’s decision to whack CBS with a $550,000 fine. Its decision was based on administrative, rather than constitutional, grounds. That is, the court concluded that the FCC’s imposition of a fine for a “fleeting” exposure of a breast was inconsistent with previously-established Commission policies. While the FCC can, of course, change its policies if it wishes, in doing so it must provide notice and an explanation of the change. According to the court, the Commission came up short on the whole notice/explanation thing. Because it found that the case could be resolved on non-constitutional grounds, the court did not take on CBS’s First Amendment arguments.
The FCC asked the Supreme Court to review the Third Circuit’s decision. However, in the meantime the Supremes considered a similar decision from the Second Circuit in the Fox case. In that case, the Supreme Court held that the FCC had adequately explained the apparent abandonment of its “fleeting expletive” policy. As a result, in May, 2009, the Supremes shipped the Fox case back to the Second Circuit for further consideration, and at the same time it shipped the CBS case back to the Third Circuit.
A year later (in July, 2010), the Second Circuit cranked out its decision on remand. There the Second Circuit held that the Commission’s indecency policy violates the First Amendment because it is unconstitutionally vague. The FCC promptly asked the Supremes to look at that decision, and the Supremes agreed. As noted above, we’re expecting that that case will be argued in early 2012, and a decision should be out by July, 2012.
Meanwhile, the Third Circuit took its own sweet time . . . some 16 months longer than the Second Circuit. And the result of its deliberations, issued November 2, 2011, is nowhere near as dramatic as the constitutional gauntlet thrown down by the Second Circuit.
Instead, the Third Circuit has again concluded that the FCC’s decision in CBS reflected a change in policy that was not adequately announced or explained. Even though the Supreme Court’s 2009 opinion in Fox accorded the Commission considerably greater leeway to change policies than the Commission had previously been thought to enjoy, the Third Circuit remains convinced that the FCC’s CBS decision cannot survive even the more relaxed standard set out in Fox.
And even the dissenting judge on the Third Circuit panel would reverse the CBS decision and remand it to the FCC. In his view, the Commission did not apply the proper standard of mens rea (a legal concept relating to the accused party's level of improper intent or "guilty mind"), so he would send the case back to the Commission for further consideration.
Where the case goes from here isn’t clear. The Commission could ask the Third Circuit to reconsider its position. (That’s the approach the Commission tried, without success, in the Second Circuit.) The Commission could try to haul CBS back up to the Supremes. Or the Commission could throw in the towel.
Since the Commission hasn’t said die on this yet, it’s probably a pretty good bet that they will continue to fight the fight, at least in the short term. The goal would be to try to keep the case alive in some venue at least until the Supreme Court acts in the Fox case next year. If the Supremes decide that the FCC’s overall indecency policy runs afoul of the First Amendment, then presumably the FCC will drop any further appeal in the CBS case, as there will no longer be any indecency policy to enforce. But if the indecency policy somehow survives Fox’s constitutional challenge, the FCC might want to continue to slug it out with CBS on the non-constitutional issues.
So here we are, nearly eight years after Ms. Jackson’s 9/16 second exposure, with at least several months – and maybe a year or more – of additional litigation ahead. But for the foreseeable future, the broadcast interests (represented by Fox and CBS) appear to be in the driver’s seat. Let’s hope they stay there.
Do the Supreme Court opinions in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association shed light on likely outcome of FCC v. Fox Television Stations indecency case next term? The Swami thinks so.
When the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to a California law regulating the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, many First Amendment types like myself asked why. A key issue was whether the Court would carve out a new exception to the First Amendment. And the Court accepted the case just one week after it decided United States v. Stevens, in which it emphatically declined to create such a new exception for videos that show cruelty to animals. Why take another First Amendment case so soon? Perhaps the Court was signaling an intent to limit the Stevens decision to its particular facts (i.e., animal cruelty videos) by opening the door to regulation of violent video games marketed to human children. And if so, might the Court be opening the door to FCC regulation of violent programming?
After the decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, it appears the Court knew exactly what it was doing. Brown struck down the video game law, relying on Stevens in refusing to create another new kind of unprotected speech, even as to minors. Broadcasters should be happy. The decision clearly implies that the FCC does NOT have the authority to regulate violent programming. The decision also leads me to conclude that, perhaps more importantly, the Court will side against the FCC in FCC v. Fox Television Stations,the indecency case it accepted on the same day Brown was decided.
The timing may be a coincidence; it was, after all, the last day of the Court’s term. But I prefer to see an interconnected series of events that takes us from Stevens to Fox in just two moves, with Brown linking them together. Six Degrees of First Amendment law.
The focus of Brown was a 2005 California law prohibiting the sale or rental of “violent video games” to minors and requiring such games to be labeled “18.” (The law defined “violent video games” as those in which “the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being, if those acts are depicted” in a manner that (a) “[a] reasonable person, considering the game as a whole, would find appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors”; (b) is “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community as to what is suitable for minors”; and (c) “causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”)
The federal courts in California had ruled that the law violates the First Amendment. California asked the Supreme Court to reverse that ruling. To California’s disappointment, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling by a deceptively strong 7-2 vote. Here’s a quick summary of the various opinions:
Majority Opinion by Justice Scalia (with Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joining):
Justice Scalia once again took up the cause for unpopular speech, acknowledging its rightful place in our society, no matter how tasteless that speech may be. In his words, “disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression.”
Scalia devoted a good three pages to the idea that Stevens (the case on animal cruelty videos) not only prevents the creation of a new “unprotected class” of speech, but is just the latest in a series of cases in which the Court rejects attempts to “shoehorn speech about violence into obscenity.” Not being a subcategory of unprotected obscene speech, violent speech receives full First Amendment protection. Justice Scalia noted that violence has existed in media for children (Grimm's Fairy Tales) to high school reading lists (The Odyssey, The Inferno,and Lord of the Flies), to mainstream novels and films. In rejecting California’s argument that video games present a special concern because they are “interactive,” Scalia gave a nod to one of my own favorite childhood book series, the “Choose your Own Adventure” books.
The California law could have stood only if it met the Court’s “strict scrutiny” test: “The State must specifically identify an actual problem in need of solving, and the curtailment of free speech must be actually necessary to the solution.” But California failed, said Scalia, to “show a direct causal link between violent video games and harm to minors.” Scalia argued that violent video games don’t cause harmful effects to minors, though there may be a correlation. The possibility of a correlation is not enough to restrict free speech, especially in a way that disfavors just one class of speaker: the sellers of video games. Finally, said Scalia, there is no real need for this law in the face of the video game industry’s voluntary rating system, which he thinks works better than those used by the music and movie industries.
Concurring Opinion by Justice Alito (with Chief Justice Roberts joining):
Alito and Roberts concurred with Scalia, but their separate opinion feels more like a dissent than a concurrence. In their view, California has the authority to tackle violent video games, but they would require the State to define the term “violent video games” more precisely.
Alito agreed that society has been relatively tolerant of violent content, even where it is available to minors. This longstanding tradition of permitting violent speech to reach even the most sensitive eyes and ears provides all the more reason to clearly define a “violent video game” here. But Stevens is not controlling, he concluded, because that case involved the creation, possession or selling of animal cruelty videos by any person; by contrast, this case involved the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. He also felt Scalia’s opinion was far too quick to dismiss the effect of the “first person shooter” aspect of most violent video games on children.
Dissenting Opinion by Justice Thomas:
A few years back Justice Thomas, in the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case, put forward the (to me) astounding theory that, since schools act in loco parentis, they can restrict student speech however they see fit. In Brown he has taken a similarly wide-ranging and paternalistic stance here: “The practices and beliefs of the Founding generation establish that ‘the freedom of speech,’ as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech).” I wonder how Thomas would describe the attitudes toward women and minorities around the time of the Bill of Rights, and how those attitudes play out in current First Amendment law.
Dissenting Opinion by Justice Breyer:
Justice Breyer’s dissenting opinion runs 35 pages, about half of which is an appendix listing studies purported to demonstrate a link between violent video games and violent behavior in children. Breyer feels that the California statute clearly explained what is prohibited because, he says, the words “kill,” “maim,” and “dismember” are no more vague than the word “nudity” as it appeared in an obscenity statute the Court upheld. In fact, said Breyer, the California law is quite similar to the Court’s Miller test for unprotected obscenity, with only a handful of words differing between the two. In his view, the California law is indeed narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest in protecting children.
Implications for Indecency
As reported elsewhere on CommLawBlog.com, the Court has agreed to review FCC v. Fox Television Stations. At issue there, of course, is whether the FCC’s indecency regime is constitutional under the First Amendment. That regime is meant to protect children from, among other things, “fleeting expletives” and the sight of a woman’s unclothed derrière, the allegedly indecent elements in Fox. After Brown, how will that case come out?
The Swami sees at least five votes against the FCC. Here’s what my crystal ball shows, viewed in the light of Brown:
Kagan, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg will rule for Fox. They were likely to do so anyway; their signing on to the majority in Brown only solidifies that in my mind. The fact that Justice Kennedy was part of the majority opinion here has me believing he is in the Fox camp as well, because he has generally been strong on First Amendment issues recently.
The others are all wild cards to some extent, mainly because their position in Brown seems diametrically opposite to positions each has taken in earlier First Amendment cases. Still, any of them could provide that all-important fifth vote for Fox; in fact, it’s more likely than not that two or three of these five will side with Fox:
Scalia wrote the majority opinion in Brown, so you’d naturally believe he’ll take a similarly strict approach to indecency regulation. In fact, he’s been one of the strongest supporters of unpopular speech, back to his deciding vote in the Texas v. Johnson flag burning case.
But Scalia also seems to have an intense distaste for bad words, and might find a way to rule in favor of the FCC without being (at least in his mind) intellectually inconsistent. For example, in his Brown opinion he placed great emphasis on the fact that violent speech is not a subset of already-restricted obscene speech; indecent speech is more closely related to obscenity, which Scalia might see as a meaningful consideration. Similarly, in Brown he relied on the traditional tolerance for violent speech in this country, a tolerance not shared with indecent speech.
Still, I’m relatively certain Scalia will put those considerations aside – much as he put aside the avowed distastefulness of these video games – and rule, as he did in Brown, that there is no “free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.”
You might expect Thomas to vote for the FCC, given his extreme dissent in Brown. But don’t forget he was the lone Justice in an earlier Fox v. FCC case (on administrative procedure issues) to question not only the legality of the indecency regulations, but also the entire underpinning of the “scarcity doctrine” that to date has justified heightened regulation of broadcasters.
Roberts has been very strong on free speech, having written the opinions in both Stevens and Snyder v. Phelps (involving the even more unpleasant conduct of the Westboro Baptist Church). Until his concurrence here, I would have said he’s a lock for Fox. I still believe he is going to rule that way, but he seemed ready to distinguish his own opinion in Stevens, and could find the FCC’s rules more acceptable than the California law in Brown.
At the same time, I’m perplexed by Alito’s vote to strike down the video game law, since he has been (to my mind) the weakest of the current Justices on speech issues. I think, though, that when push comes to shove, he’ll find a way to uphold the FCC.
Finally, there’s Breyer. Also generally strong on free speech issues, but the most likely of the Court’s “liberal bloc” to depart from the others, as he did in Brown. He has now shown that he can be persuaded by empirical evidence. Expect those on the FCC’s side in Fox to try to rely on such evidence. He really could go either way.
In the end, while the names and perhaps the justifications might change, I see FCC v. Fox Television Stations as a 6-3 or 7-2 victory for the broadcasters. Watch this space.
Fox and NYPD Blue cases could provide last word in long-running debate
The Supreme Court has agreed to review the decisions of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in the Fox Television and NYPD Blue cases. In a terse order issued the last day of the Court’s term, the Supremes said that it would consider only the following question:
Whether the Federal Communications Commission’s current indecency-enforcement regime violates the First or Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
And with that the stage has been set for what could be the final battle in the decades-long struggle relative to the regulation of so-called “indecency” on broadcast stations.
The FCC rulings that will provide the focal point of the case involve two awards shows (in which first Cher, and then Nicole Richie, let loose with some supposedly unscripted expletives on live TV) and an episode of NYPD Blue which featured a brief – less than seven seconds, by our count – view of Charlotte Ross’s naked rear end (prompting the FCC to declare buttocks to be a sexual organ).
We have blogged repeatedly about the long-running indecency saga – click here and scroll down for a sampler – and the Supreme Court’s order provides little additional insight into what might be in store. (Interestingly, Justice Sotomayor did not participate in the decision to review the case; it’s not clear whether that means that she might recuse herself entirely from the case.) However, the Court’s express limitation of the case to the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency policy does indicate that, unlike the last time this case was before the Court, we are in fact likely to get a determination of the constitutionality of that policy. And let’s not forget Justice Thomas’s separate opinion the last time Fox was before the Court – an opinion in which he suggested that, if the case came back, he might be inclined to look into the continuing validity of the Red Lion doctrine. (Red Lion is the 1969 Supreme Court decision in which the scarcity rationale was embraced by the Court as a justification for according broadcasters less than full First Amendment rights.)
The Court will now set up a briefing and argument schedule. Look for briefs to be submitted by the end of the summer or early fall, with an argument date following several weeks later. It’s reasonably likely that the argument will be held before the end of the year, although the Court might not issue its ruling until June, 2012. Check back here for updates.
[Blogmeister’s Note: Let’s not forget that, almost a year ago, our resident Swami Kevin Goldberg predicted that, if the Fox case were to go back up to the Supremes, Fox would win, by 6-3, or maybe 7-2, margin. We’ll be checking back with the Swami after the argument next fall to see if he’s sticking with that.]
FCC asks Supreme Court to review Second Circuit indecency decisions in Fox and NYPD Blue.
Like a hard-core poker player on a losing streak, the Commission isn’t going to let a recent string of defeats on the indecency front discourage it. Au contraire, the FCC’s going double-or-nothing, putting all its chips in and looking to Lady Luck for a change in fortune: it has asked the Supreme Court to review both of the Second Circuit’s 2010-2011 indecency decisions. But there’s no guarantee that the Commission will even be dealt a hand in the next round . . . and if it does get dealt in, the odds may be against the FCC in what could turn out to be a very high stakes game.
The two cases involve (1) Fox’s broadcasts of the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards and (2) an episode of ABC’s NYPD Blue. We’ll spare you the historical details here – you can read about them in our previous posts (like here and here). The U.S. Court of Appeals concluded in the Fox case that the FCC’s indecency policy, as it has evolved in recent years, is unconstitutionally vague and fails to give broadcasters a clear enough idea of precisely what types of material may or may not be deemed “indecent”. In the NYPD Blue case the same court held that its Fox ruling applied equally not only to language (which had been at issue in Fox) but also to visual images.
The one-two punch delivered by the Second Circuit effectively scuttled the FCC’s efforts to enforce its quasi-ban on indecency.
Had the Commission chosen not to take the cases up to the Supremes, the Commission would have been unable to continue those efforts without first radically revising its regulatory approach. (The alternative, of course, would have been simply to walk away from indecency enforcement entirely – an alternative that was, obviously, not the Commission’s first choice.) Such a radical revision would have sucked the Commission back into the regulatory and constitutional quagmire of indecency regulation that has existed for nearly four decades since the Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Pacifica (often referred to as “the seven dirty words” case).
So the Commission is going with a Hail Mary to the Supreme Court, apparently hoping that the Supremes will tell the Second Circuit that its Fox and NYPD Blue rulings were wrong.
We won’t get deeply into the specifics of the FCC’s arguments to the Supreme Court here. Since the next act of the indecency soap opera could play out over the next year or so, there should be plenty of time for that down the line. But here are a few things to know that might help you appreciate the drama as it unfolds.
First, even though the FCC has asked the Supremes to review the Second Circuit decisions, there’s no guarantee that that request will be granted. Unlike the federal circuit courts of appeal, the Supreme Court is not (except in very, very rare instances, and this isn’t one of them) required to take cases just because one of the litigants asks it to.
A party wanting the Supremes to consider its case files a petition explaining why the issues in the case are important enough to warrant the Court’s attention. (Want to impress your lawyer friends? The technical name for such a petition is “petition for certiorari” – that last word generally, but not invariably, being pronounced “sur-she-or-RARE-eye”. You can also short-hand it as “cert petition”, where “cert” is pronounced like the candy/breath mint.) The Supreme Court rules describe the types of issues that might get you in the door. Essentially, they’re looking for cases involving some “important federal question”, particularly if the lower court has decided that question in a way that conflicts with decisions by the Supreme Court or other courts of appeals.
In its petition (which was co-signed by the Solicitor General, as is customary but not mandatory in such cases), the Commission argues that the Second Circuit’s decisions conflict with the Supreme Court’s 1978 Pacifica decision and a couple of 1990s-era indecency decisions out of the D.C. Circuit. The Commission also claims that the Second Circuit’s “vagueness” analysis was inconsistent with a 2010 Supreme Court decision. And finally, the Commission asserts that, if the Second Circuit rulings remain in effect, the Commission will be unable to do what Congress has told it to do, i.e., enforce the statutory prohibition against the broadcast of indecent material.
The next step in the process will be the filing of oppositions to, and/or statements in support of, the FCC’s cert petition. Oppositions are due within 30 days of the FCC’s filing (i.e., by May 23), unless the time gets extended. Once oppositions are filed, the Court will hunker down, read through the pleadings, and decide whether to take the case. Since the Supreme Court’s annual term traditionally wraps up by the end of June or early July, it’s obviously too late to get the case briefed and argued this term, but there’s at least a chance that the Court might rule, before it closes up shop this summer, on whether or not it will hear the case next term.
If the Court denies the Commission’s petition, that’s just about all she wrote – the Second Circuit decisions will then stand and, if the FCC’s petition is accurate, the Commission will be “preclude[d] . . . from effectively implementing statutory restrictions on broadcast indecency”. If the Court grants the petition, it will set a briefing and argument schedule that would probably call for arguments sometime this Fall. In that case we’d be looking for a decision on the merits from the Court by the end of the term, i.e., by July, 2012.
Oddsmakers usually don’t give cert petitions much chance. The Court gets lots of them, but ends up granting only a tiny percentage. This case may be different, though. The Fox case has already been to the Supremes once, which suggests that the Court may have an interest in taking a look at the constitutionality of indecency regulations. That is, after all, a question which the Court has not revisited in more than 30 years. (On its first trip to the high court in 2009, the Fox case was resolved on non-constitutional grounds, which set the table for the Second Circuit to issue a ruling on constitutional grounds, leading to the current state of affairs.)
That’s the good news for the Commission.
The bad news is that, if the Court does take the case, the Commission may find the Court interested in significantly more than mere indecency. As one of my fellow bloggers observed last year,
in his separate opinion in the Supreme Court’s 2009 Fox decision, Justice Thomas specifically invited reconsideration not only of Pacifica, but also of Red Lion. Red Lion is the 1969 Supreme Court decision upholding the Fairness Doctrine (and, by implication, special regulatory treatment for broadcasting) because of the supposed “scarcity” of broadcast spectrum. Thomas referred in particular to the “questionable viability” of both Red Lion and Pacifica. If four of his colleagues were to agree with Thomas that the scarcity rationale is no longer valid, that could cause massive upheaval in virtually every aspect of the FCC’s operation.
So there is at least some basis for thinking that the Court could see this case as an opportunity to review the continued viability of the “scarcity rationale” which forms the historical foundation of much of the FCC’s regulation of broadcasting. If that were to happen, it’s at least conceivable that the Commission could lose not only its ability to regulate indecency, but its ability to regulate broadcasting as it has for decades.
So the stakes could definitely be high for all concerned. We’ll keep you updated on the action as it goes down.
Además el cambio ca, además de que es lo mismo.
Five years ago I was quoted in an article in Billboard about whether Spanish-language broadcasters get a pass when it comes to enforcement of the FCC’s indecency rules. Several English-language broadcasters – including Howard Stern (who quoted me on the air) – have frequently complained that the FCC does not enforce the rules equally. Suspected reasons for the disparity: fewer complaints get filed against Spanish language programs, and the Spanish-speaking staff at the FCC has traditionally been undermanned.
Now a couple of groups are looking to change the first of those possible reasons.
The National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) have filed a complaint (173 pages in all, including extensive attachments) with the FCC against a TV station in the Los Angeles area. The focus of their complaint: the Spanish-language television talk show “José Luis Sin Censura” (translation: “José Luis Uncensored”).
According to NHMC and GLAAD, over 20 episodes of the show that aired between June-December of last year contained images and language that were indecent and that would have been routinely edited out of English-language broadcasts. The complaint alleges the repeated use of sexually-oriented terms such as “pinche” and “culero”, along with anti-gay epithets (“maricón”, “joto”, “puñal”) and anti-Latino slurs (e.g., “mojado”). Presumably recognizing the likelihood that the FCC may not be familiar with Spanish pejoratives, the complainants have included a “Note on Translation” in which they provide the approximate English equivalents. (“Pinche” is said to be “roughly equivalent” to “fucking”; “culero” means “assfucker”; “maricón”, “joto” and “puñal” are derogatory terms for gay people, akin to “faggot”; “mojado” refers to “wetback”.)
They’ve also posted a collection of examples (including a number of NSFW items, such as semi-clad women) demonstrating their point on YouTube.
In recent years the NHMC – a non-profit, media advocacy organization aimed at improving the image of Latinos in the media – has been increasingly active in filing complaints against what it perceives to be offensive content on the airwaves. Two years ago it asked the Commission to investigate the use of “hate speech”, and particularly such speech directed against Latinos, on the airwaves. For its part, GLAAD – an organization aimed at promoting understanding, increases acceptance, and advancing equality for the LGBT community – has been working against the “José Luis Sin Censura” show for years. It claims that its efforts have prompted a number of prominent sponsors to pull their advertising.
The latest complaint echoes the charges that were raised in the 2006 Billboard article, namely that the FCC does not enforce indecency rules again Spanish and other foreign language broadcast stations in the same way that it does against English language stations. In fact, the complaint quotes from (and attaches a copy of) the 2006 Billboard article. It will be interesting to see whether the Commission’s reaction does anything to alter the perception that, for whatever reason, its indecency enforcement activities have historically reflected some cultural bias.
Language and cultural differences aside, though, the complainants may run into a different problem. The claims that NHMC and GLAAD are advancing accuse the TV licensee of broadcasting indecency. But the Commission’s ability to regulate indecency has been shaken by a couple of court cases, as my blogging colleagues have chronicled (here, for example, and here). So even if the FCC would like to demonstrate conclusively that it is an equal opportunity indecency enforcer, it may find itself without the ability to do so. Stay tuned.
Second Circuit tosses FCC fine against ABC stations for bathroom scene featuring Charlotte Ross's buttocks
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has handed the FCC another set-back on the indecency front. A unanimous panel of the Court has issued a Summary Order vacating the $1.2 million in fines that the Commission sought to impose on ABC and its affiliates for a 2003 episode of NYPD Blue. According to the Court, the FCC effectively conceded away its case.
As indecency cognoscenti will recall, the FCC got its knickers all in a twist about the show’s opening scene, which featured the comely Charlotte Ross disrobing in a bathroom as she prepared to shower. The scene included shots of Ms. Ross’s buttocks for slightly less than seven seconds, total. But that was enough for the FCC, which determined that the “lingering shot” of her derriere was “shocking, pandering and titillating”. (The Commission was not, however, similarly disturbed by the fleeting image of the side of one of her breasts.) The penalty? A $27,500 fine against each of 44 ABC affiliated stations.
ABC appealed the action to the Second Circuit, which had in 2007 invalidated the Commission’s indecency policy on non-constitutional grounds in the Fox case. Action on the ABC appeal was put on hold while the Fox case headed to the Supreme Court (in 2008) only to get bounced back to the Second Circuit (in 2009), which then held the policy to be unconstitutional in July of last year. (The FCC asked the Second Circuit to reconsider its Fox decision, but the Court declined the opportunity, as most of us expected it would.)
In pleadings filed in the ABC case, the FCC acknowledged that the 2010 Fox decision “invalidated the [FCC]’s indecency policy in its entirety.” That is, there was nothing left of the indecency policy after Fox. And while there may be some arguable factual distinctions between the Fox case and the ABC case – for example, Fox involved mere unscripted language, while NYPD Blue involved “scripted nudity” – the FCC effectively conceded that those were immaterial because the legal principle announced in the Fox case didn’t depend on any particular factual distinctions. (For what it’s worth, the ABC Court expressly rejected the notion that there were in fact any significant distinctions between Fox and ABC.)
Since the ABC case involved the FCC’s application of its indecency policy, and since that policy had already been held to be unconstitutional (in the Fox case), the Second Circuit had little difficulty in concluding that the NYPD Blue fine should be vacated.
According to a brief notation in the decision, the Summary Order does not have any “precedential” effect, which means that the ABC decision itself will not be binding on the Court in any other cases that may arise. But that probably doesn’t make much difference, because it’s clear that Fox is binding. And given the ABC panel’s emphatic affirmation of the broad reach of the Fox decision, the FCC should not expect any different result out of the Second Circuit any time soon. So while the ABC decision may not add any new dimension to the indecency debate, it certainly suggests that the Second Circuit remains solidly committed to the rationale set out in Fox.
Where do we go from here? There are now three separate cases – Fox, ABC and CBS’s continuing saga relative to the Janet Jackson/Super Bowl matter – that could go to the Supreme Court sooner rather than later. Fox and CBS are not quite yet teed up to go straight to the Supremes, and in view of its total reliance on Fox, it seems unlikely that the FCC would attempt to take ABC up by itself. Whether the issue of the FCC’s indecency policy is ultimately brought back to the Supreme Court – and, if it is, whether the Supremes will agree to look at it – is anybody’s guess. But if the issue does make it up there, we could end up with a decision that fundamentally changes FCC jurisprudence as we have known it for decades: not just the law of indecency, but the extent to which the FCC may permissibly regulate any broadcast content.
[Blogmeister's Note: This post has been updated to reflect that the Second Circuit denied the FCC's petition for rehearing (on November 22, 2010). The decision was largely unpublicized and unreported, and we found out about it only through our old friend Andy Schwartzman, who kindly brought it to our attention.]
Take "no" for an answer? No way! FCC seeks rehearing at Second Circuit. (Supremes will just have to wait.)
As we reported last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the FCC’s indecency enforcement regime as unconstitutional. That left the FCC with only three options if it wanted to fight to defend its indecency regime. It could either: (1) go back to the three judges who rejected the policy, trying to convince them that they got it wrong; or (2) ask the entire en banc Second Circuit (which includes ten active-service judges) to reverse the three-judge panel’s decision; or (3) go for broke and ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. (Obviously, abandoning the indecency regime was also a fourth option, albeit not one the FCC was likely to embrace).
Late in August, the FCC made up its mind: it’s going for Options (1) and (2), leaving for another day (and maybe another case) the possibility of Supreme Court review of indecency enforcement.
According to the FCC’s petition for rehearing, the Second Circuit panel’s Fox decision went too far in overturning the entire indecency enforcement regime. The Commission asserts that the panel’s conclusion – that the FCC’s overall indecency policy is unconstitutionally vague – is inconsistent with earlier decisions by the Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit, and even the Second Circuit itself. The Commission argues that the Fox decision rejects the “contextual approach” to indecency analysis the FCC has used in the past – and that, by so doing, leaves the Commission with no way to enforce the federal laws prohibiting indecent broadcasts.
As the FCC sees it, the Second Circuit panel should have focused narrowly on the particular facts of the case before it and should have assessed the FCC’s analysis of those facts, nothing more and nothing less. Instead, at least according to the Commission, the panel considered other facts and circumstances involving other cases to reach its conclusion that the overall indecency policy – not merely that policy as applied to the Fox facts – was too vague. But, the Commission argues, there is nothing vague about the notion that “fuck” and “shit” – the words uttered by Cher and Nicole Richie in the Fox broadcasts at issue – are indecent; accordingly, even if there might be some question about whether other material might or might not be deemed “indecent”, the same cannot be said of the particular material before the court.
The Commission gussies up this argument with a discussion of the standards for when a rule is “vague” as a constitutional matter, although that discussion includes, at most, only passing mention of the different “overbreadth” standard often used in First Amendment cases. Suffice it to say that, whatever the other merits of the Commission’s argument on this point, it presupposes that the language at issue here was, in fact, “indecent”. But since the Commission had determined in at least two cases more or less contemporaneous with its decision in the Fox case that similar language was not indecent, that assumption is obviously open to question.
The Commission also characterizes the panel’s decision as effectively rejecting the “contextual” approach which the FCC says it has taken to indecency enforcement. Other courts – including the Supremes in the Mother of All Indecency Cases, Pacifica, not to mention at least one other Second Circuit panel – have repeatedly emphasized the need for the Commission to consider “context”. Thus, the Commission argues, the Fox panel’s seeming rejection of that approach should be reviewed and reversed as inconsistent with precedent.
The problem with this aspect of the FCC’s argument is that it’s not entirely clear that the panel rejected the importance of “context” as the FCC claims. Rather, the panel appears to have been critical not of the need to consider “context”, but rather of the FCC’s less than clear – opaque, some might say – approach to how “context” is considered. While the Commission undeniably incants the term “context” in its indecency opinions, that incantation often appears to be little more than the legalistic equivalent of “abracadabra”, a rhetorical flourish with no apparent meaning or substance.
As one example – cited by the Second Circuit panel – the Commission’s contextual analysis enabled it to reach diametrically inconsistent conclusions about the use of the term “bullshitter” in a single instance, each time citing an identical contextual aspect. First, the fact that that word was aired during a news interview made it indecent; but on further thought, the Commission concluded that, because it was aired during a news interview, it wasn’t indecent. In the panel’s words, if the Commission does have any actual indecency standard, it is a standard that “even the FCC cannot articulate or apply consistently.”
The Commission’s final argument is one of apparent exasperation. As it reads the panel decision, the Commission can’t win because any changes to make its contextual analysis more predictable would raise further First Amendment concerns, subjecting the FCC to a Catch-22.
This argument is intriguing because, by making it, the Commission could be seen as conceding that, as a practical matter, indecency is not susceptible to regulation within constitutional limitations. To be sure, the Supreme Court in Pacifica held that the Constitution does permit some regulation of broadcast indecency. But the Supremes then left it to the Commission and the courts to develop, on a case-by-case basis, an appropriate analytical approach in which “context” would be all-important. If, after more than 30 years, the best that the FCC has been able to come up with is the “analysis” invoked in Fox, is it possible that the agency is incapable of regulating indecency – beyond the Carlin monologue at issue in Pacifica – constitutionally? The FCC’s rehearing petition seems to imply that.
The Second Circuit now must decide whether or not to grant rehearing, either by the original panel or en banc. While that may sound simple, it’s not. In particular, the en banc rehearing process in the federal courts ranks up there with papal elections when it comes to procedural quirks. The FCC’s petition will first be circulated to all ten active judges on the Circuit as well as Senior Judge Leval, who sat on the original panel. Any of those 11 can ask that his/her colleagues be polled as to whether or not to consider the petition. If nobody asks for such a polling, the petition is denied. If polling is requested, then the ten active judges – but no senior judges (i.e., Judge Leval doesn’t participate) – are polled. Unless a majority of those polled vote for rehearing, the petition is denied. If a majority of the poll votes to grant rehearing, then the case is re-briefed and re-argued in front of all ten active judges and Senior Judge Leval. There is no guarantee that, even if the case gets that far, the FCC would prevail. A majority of the en banc court could just as easily affirm the panel’s decision.
In other words, the FCC has a long row to hoe.
Meanwhile, a couple of other indecency cases also continue to wend their way through the Courts.
A separate panel of three judges in the Second Circuit is currently considering an appeal of the FCC decision that the broadcast of “naked buttocks” during an episode of NYPD Blue was indecent. After the Fox decision came down in July, the NYPD Blue panel asked the parties for supplemental briefs discussing the impact of Fox on the NYPD Blue case. The FCC’s terse, four page, brief noted the Commission’s belief that the facts of the NYPD Blue broadcast, which involved the scripted display of adult nudity, were very different from those at issue in Fox, which involved the utterance of unscripted “fleeting expletives”. Nevertheless, the Commission conceded that the agency’s decisions in both Fox and NYPD Blue were based on the same “contextual framework” that the Court found unconstitutional in Fox. According to the Commission, the Court’s Fox opinion therefore “appears to suggest” that the policy would be unconstitutional as applied to the NYPD Blue case as well.
As a result, the Commission suggests that the NYPD Blue appeal be put on hold until after resolution of any rehearing motion (the Commission’s NYPD Blue supplemental brief was filed several days before the Fox petition for rehearing went in). With both cases pending in the same court, it seems likely that there will not be any decision in the NYPD Blue case until the Fox rehearing request is disposed of.
And just down the road in Philadelphia, the Third Circuit is also dealing with indecency in CBS’s appeal of the Commission’s Janet Jackson/Super Bowl decision. As we reported in the April issue of our Memo to Clients, the Third Circuit, after hearing oral arguments early this year, asked for supplemental briefs on issues that could allow the court to resolve the case without addressing the constitutional questions regarding the FCC’s indecency policies. While the Third Circuit does not appear to have asked the parties to discuss the possible effect of Fox on the Janet Jackson case, CBS (the appellant) did notify the court of the issuance of Fox decision, thus suggesting that the Second Circuit’s decision was at least relevant to the Third Circuit’s deliberations. The FCC responded with a two-page letter in which it observed that the Third Circuit is not bound to follow Second Circuit decisions and that, anyway, the Second Circuit decision is flawed, and, by the way, the Third Circuit is still considering issues that might allow it to resolve the Janet Jackson case on non-constitutional grounds.
While the sparring before the various circuits is important and could prove decisive, the real question is whether – and if so, when – we’ll ever get to the Main Event. That would be review by the Supreme Court of the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency enforcement policy as it has developed since Pacifica. Such review could have implications for the FCC’s authority far beyond the somewhat narrow issue of indecency. With the FCC’s election to seek rehearing of Fox at the Second Circuit (rather than ask the Supremes to take a look at the case), that Main Event has been deferred at least a year or two.
[Blogmeister’s Note: A recent post alluded to our crack First Amendment guru and Supreme Court Observer, Kevin Goldberg, and his assessment of the likely vote should the Second Circuit’s Fox decision return to the Supremes. In response to a surge of reader interest in his prognostications, we have asked The Man to give us a look-see into Kevin’s Krystal Ball. Kevin has asked that we note for the record that he: (a) accurately predicted the result in the original Fox v. FCC decision in the Supreme Court (well, sort of accurately – he mixed up the votes of Souter and Kennedy) and (b) has correctly picked the winner of the last three World Cup finals. So he seems to feel that he’s on a bit of a roll . . .]
I see the Supreme Court affirming the Second Circuit – and, thus, tossing out the FCC’s indecency policy – by 7-2, or maybe 6-3. Here’s my thinking.
Let’s start with the Court’s recent decision in United States v. Stevens. There the court voted 8-1 not to carve out new exceptions to the First Amendment in order to criminalize the production or sale of videos depicting animal cruelty. Sure, trafficking in animal cruelty videos isn’t the equivalent of broadcasting indecent speech. But Stevens sheds light on (a) the degree of unpleasant (or even outright disgusting) speech each Justice is willing to tolerate and (b) the level of vagueness he or she will or will not tolerate in a law or regulation. Throw in several statements made during the oral arguments the first time the Fox case rolled through the Supreme Court (it was argued on Election Day 2008), and we can get some sense of how each Justice might vote on the constitutional issue.
Frankly, I don’t see much change from Stevens. It’s pretty safe to say that the “liberal block” of the Court will affirm the Second Circuit and strike down the FCC’s regulatory scheme. (That would parallel the vote in the 1978 Pacifica case, where the four liberal survivors from the Warren Court hung together in dissent.) Let’s also assume that Justice-designate Kagan will: (a) be confirmed and (b) vote the same way that Justice Stevens did in Stevens (no relation, obviously). So right there you’ve got Breyer, Ginsbug, Sotomayor and Kagan ready to slap the FCC down.
I think Fox also gets Justice Thomas. He was the only Justice in the 2009 Fox decision to flat out question the rationale for broadcast content regulation. His separate opinion there indicated that he’s itching to do away not only with the indecency regulations, but also with the scarcity doctrine underpinning all regulation of broadcast content. Plus, he voted with the majority in Stevens. And don’t forget his vote in U.S. v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc. There the Court struck down a requirement that cable operators scramble sexually explicit content. He voted with the majority, saying “I am unwilling to corrupt the First Amendment to reach this result. The ‘starch’ in our constitutional standards cannot be sacrificed to accommodate the enforcement choices of the Government.”
On the other side, I suspect that Justice Alito is the most likely to vote to reverse the Second Circuit and side with the FCC. He was the lone outlier in Stevens and has generally seemed to be paternalistic and protective of “society’s morals” in similar cases.
That gets us to 5-1, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Kennedy left. I think you might see one, maybe two, of them side with the FCC, but not all three. Why?
Chief Justice Roberts wrote the strong majority opinion in Stevens and was clearly uncomfortable with the lack of regulatory precision in that case. While it’s possible that he could line up with Alito, I just don’t see it. After all, the Chief was also in the majority in the most controversial First Amendment decision of the most recent term (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). There is really no comparison between Fox and Citizens United, but if the Chief is going to go that far out on a limb in favor of the First Amendment, it's going to take him a while to get back in, even if he really wants to come back.
Speaking of Citizens United, that decision was written by Justice Kennedy. He was also in the majority in Reno v. ACLU and wrote the opinion in the U.S. v. Playboy.
I originally had Scalia solidly on Fox’s side, but I began to rethink this a little. He wrote majority decision in 2009, when Fox first blew through the Court and the FCC won. (As you will recall, the Court then sent the case back down on administrative law grounds without reach the thornier constitutional issues.) But that doesn’t say much: he was very clear that he was ruling on the non-constitutional issues only, and he never hinted at how he might come out on the First Amendment issue here. Some of his votes in other First Amendment cases suggest he might side with Fox here. Remember, Scalia was the swing vote (joining uber-liberal Justices Brennan and Marshall) in Texas v. Johnson, which accorded First Amendment protection to flag burning. He was also clearly with the majority in Stevens.
On the other side, he’s shown that he is willing to “vote morality”. In Barnes v. Glen Theater he concluded that the First Amendment did not prevent restriction of nude dancing. He also dissented in U.S. v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc. Ultimately, I’m hoping that he’ll vote to strike down the FCC’s indecency scheme because: (1) he justified the moral high ground in Barnes only after declaring nude dancing to be conduct, not expression; (2) he dissented in Playboy only after deciding that the content providers in that case were clearly providing – and intending to provide – hard core sexually-oriented material, not at all the case here; and (3) he was in the majority in Reno v. ACLU back in 1997 where regulation of supposedly “harmful” material on the Internet was declared unconstitutional, in part due to the vagueness of the law.
So maybe more than one of Scalia/Roberts/Kennedy drops off to join Alito in upholding the FCC’s indecency policy. But I doubt it. And in any event, I clearly don’t think any more than those three join Alito in ruling for the FCC.
Bottom line: Kevin’s Krystal Ball says that Fox wins in the Supremes.
Whither the Commission, and the rest of us, from here?
Now that the initial hoopla attendant to the release of the Second Circuit’s Fox decision has quieted down, let’s take a gander at legal scenarios that might be in store for us.
Most obviously is the prospect of further efforts by the FCC to convince some court, any court, that the Second Circuit panel’s decision was wrong. The options available to the Commission are:
Petition for rehearing to the Second Circuit panel. This would require the FCC to convince at least two of the panel’s three judges that the decision they just made was wrong. Good luck with that.
Petition for rehearing en banc to the full Second Circuit. This would require the FCC to convince at least six of the ten active judges sitting on the Second Circuit that the whole court should take a look at the panel’s decision. According to the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, en banc rehearings are generally “not favored” and “ordinarily will not be ordered”. So good luck with that, too.
Petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is the classic “taking it to the next level”, and is probably the best appellate option the FCC has. But the Supremes are under no obligation to review the case; in fact, the odds are that they won’t agree to review any case (in the term ending in June, 2009, the Court reportedly denied 98.9% of the cert petitions filed). Still, the Court heard the Fox case back in 2009, so the Supremes obviously have some interest in it. If the FCC wants to keep the ball alive on the judicial side, Supreme Court review is likely its best bet.
Clouding the FCC’s choices is the fact that CBS’s appeal in the Janet Jackson case is currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Since that case also involves the indecency policy so thoroughly trashed by the Second Circuit in Fox, the Commission might be inclined to hold off until the Third Circuit shows its hand before making any decisions about the next appellate step through the indecency minefield. (The FCC has 90 days to file its cert petition – and that can be extended another 60 days under some circumstances – so the Commission may sit back and wait at least a little while for a Third Circuit decision to roll in.)
[Blogmeister’s Note: Kevin Goldberg, our crack Supreme Court observer and First Amendment guru, has advised that, according to Kevin’s Krystal Ball, the Second Circuit’s decision would be affirmed in the Supreme Court by at least 6-3, maybe even 7-2, if it were to get that far. Kevin has undertaken considerable analysis to back this up – let us know if you would like us to post that analysis – and he assures us that he is not relying on the soccer-predicting German octopus. Some reports, however, indicate that he has his own octopus powering the Krystal Ball (see illustration at right).]
Of course, the Commission could also just run up the white flag and forget about appealing any further. In that case, its indecency options would be reduced to two: (1) go back to the drawing board and attempt to develop an indecency enforcement policy that passes constitutional muster; or (2) accept the fact that indecency is not susceptible to government regulation.
In view of the zeal with which the FCC has been flexing its anti-indecency muscles in recent years, (2) seems an unlikely choice. That unlikelihood is underscored by Commissioner Copps’s statement concerning the Second Circuit decision. In that statement Copps expressed his hope that the FCC would appeal the case, and he called on the Commission to “move forward immediately to clarify and strengthen its indecency framework”. Hmm . . . we’re guessing that he would opt for choice (1).
But so far Copps is the only Commissioner who has spoken up on this. Others might reasonably take the position that now would be a good time for the Commission to get out of the business of trying to regulate indecency. This is particularly so since the FCC could claim that such a retreat was strictly a reaction to the Second Circuit’s decision. That is, if any critics tried to beat up on the Commission for giving up too early, the Commissioners could simply respond that the Court made them do it.
While the FCC plans out its next move on the litigation front, what about all those indecency complaint proceedings which have been piling up at the Commission over the last several years?
The good news is that, in the aftermath of the Fox decision, it seems very unlikely that the FCC would attempt to take any enforcement action based on pending complaints. After all, the Second Circuit told the FCC in no uncertain terms that the Commission’s indecency policy is unconstitutional. With the Second Circuit’s order sitting there, the Commission seems to have no choice but to stand down unless/until that order is reversed. So don’t expect to see any more fines or forfeitures or notices of apparent liability or even letters of inquiry relating to allegations of indecency while the Second Circuit’s Fox decision is alive and kicking.
And similarly, anyone who is already in the middle of an indecency inquiry – say, for example, every Fox affiliate who received the American Dad inquiry – is probably off the hook for responding to the FCC’s questions. (The Commission could theoretically ask the Second Circuit to stay the effectiveness of its order. The odds that such a request might be granted fall comfortably in the “good luck with that” range.)
Ironically, the FCC’s likely inaction on pending complaints is bad news as well. Lack of FCC action would mean that all the stations whose license renewals have been held up for years solely because of pending indecency complaints would probably not see those renewals granted in the short term. That’s frustrating: once a court has determined that an agency is acting unconstitutionally, regulatees who have suffered and are continuing to suffer from such unconstitutional activity should logically be entitled to prompt relief. While it would be nice if the Commission were to do the right thing here, you probably shouldn’t count on that happening. Pending applications are likely to remain pending.
The Commission could clear up any uncertainty about all these things by issuing a public notice setting forth its plans. If that happens, we’ll let you know. In the meantime it would probably be advisable not to hold your breath.
Fox wins third round in long-running slug-fest; next stop – the Supreme Court?
In a huge win for broadcasters and First Amendment-loving citizens, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has struck down the FCC’s indecency policy. According to the Court, that policy violates the First Amendment because it is unconstitutionally vague and creates a “chilling effect” on constitutionally protected free speech. Importantly, the Court’s decision extends beyond the “fleeting expletives” aspect of indecency regulation (which was the original focus of the case) and, instead, strikes down the FCC’s fundamental policy on indecency.
The Second Circuit issued its opinion in Fox v. FCC, about which we have written before (check here and here and here, for examples). The case involves comments made in front of an open mike by (a) Cher (“fuck ’em”) and (b) Nicole Richie (“Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It’s not so fucking simple.”).
The FCC initially held that those comments, which were broadcast by Fox, were indecent. Fox appealed to the Second Circuit and, in 2007, the Circuit overturned the FCC’s policy on technical, administrative law grounds. As the Second Circuit saw it, the supposedly indecent remarks were “fleeting expletives”, the kind of incidental, extemporaneous exclamations that the FCC had historically not penalized. While that hands-off policy had changed with the 2004 Bono/Golden Globes decision (involving a broadcast in which Bono, upon receiving an award, famously exclaimed, “This is really, really, fucking brilliant” ), in its first whack at the Fox case in 2007 the Second Circuit determined that the FCC had not adequately explained the shift in its treatment of “fleeting expletives”.
In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that narrow decision, holding that the FCC’s explanation was just fine, thank you. The Supremes shipped the case back down to the Second Circuit for another look. The Second Circuit’s initial opinion had included an extended, non-decisional discussion of constitutional issues – a discussion which unmistakably indicated that the Circuit felt the FCC’s policy to be unconstitutional. As a result, many – possibly most – observers figured that the Second Circuit would use this second bite at the apple to reach the constitutional issue for real.
The Second Circuit did not disappoint.
Acknowledging that the Supreme Court (in the 1978 Pacifica case) had clearly held that the Constitution permits some regulation of indecency, the Second Circuit observes that the media landscape has changed dramatically in the 30 years since Pacifica. The overwhelming penetration level of cable and satellite services and the development of an “omnipresent” Internet offering all sorts of video programming starkly contrast with the state of affairs in 1978, when broadcast media occupied a “uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans”. The Circuit also notes the technological controls now available to help parents police content in their own homes.
But even within the confines of Pacifica, the Second Circuit concludes that the FCC’s policy on indecent broadcasts exceeds Constitutional limits because the policy is impermissibly vague.
Significantly, the Circuit’s ruling targets the FCC’s entire indecency standard – not just the “fleeting expletives” component that was the focus of its 2007 opinion.
In a tour de force of First Amendment analysis, the Second Circuit takes apart virtually every element of the FCC’s policy and the FCC’s defense of that policy. The Circuit finds that the standard itself is so vague that neither the broadcast industry nor the FCC itself could ever be certain which words or images qualify as “patently offensive” under the existing standard. The Court also observes that the FCC’s presumptive prohibition against the words “shit” and “fuck” can’t survive because the FCC can’t justify why some uses of those words have been prohibited and some not.
For example, how could the FCC permit the broadcast of repeated uses of certain “bad” words by fictional soldiers in Saving Private Ryan, but proscribe the use of those same words by real life musicians in a documentary about the blues? The Commission has on occasion attempted to explain its actions on the basis of such factors as whether the words are “integral” to a particular program or whether the program is a “bona fide news interview”. But in the Circuit’s view, “[t]here is little rhyme or reason to these decisions”.
The Second Circuit describes the enormous First Amendment harms that naturally flow from “the FCC’s indiscernible standards”. The Court notes the inherent risk that vague standards applied on an “ad hoc” basis by government officials allows for the suppression of particular points of view: “it is hard not to speculate that the FCC was simply more comfortable with the themes in ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ a mainstream movie with a familiar cultural milieu, than it was with ‘The Blues,’ which largely profiled an outsider genre of musical experience.”
The Circuit also recognizes that the FCC’s vague standards force broadcasters to choose between (a) censoring controversial programs and (b) risking massive fines or loss of licenses – the unsurprising result being that many broadcasters choose to self-censor. According to the Court, concern about possible FCC enforcement efforts has prompted stations to edit or refuse to air a wide range of programming, including a documentary on the September 11th World Trade Center attack, literary readings, live news programs, political debates, sitcoms and dramatic programs.
And with that, the Second Circuit has struck down the FCC’s indecency policy. While the Court acknowledges that, unless and until Pacifica is overruled, the FCC could conceivably create a constitutional policy, the agency’s current policy does not pass Constitutional muster.
The Second Circuit’s decision represents an unambiguous defeat of the FCC’s current indecency policy – but it’s not likely the last word on the subject. The FCC will almost certainly appeal to the Supreme Court. And let’s not forget that the Third Circuit still has the Janet Jackson Super Bowl case pending – raising the possibility of conflicting decisions between the two federal courts. Such a “circuit split” would virtually guarantee a Supreme Court review.
The prospect of Supreme Court review focusing on the constitutionality of indecency regulation is particularly exciting because, in his separate opinion in the Supreme Court’s 2009 Fox decision, Justice Thomas specifically invited reconsideration not only of Pacifica, but also of Red Lion. Red Lion is the 1969 Supreme Court decision upholding the Fairness Doctrine (and, by implication, special regulatory treatment for broadcasting) because of the supposed “scarcity” of broadcast spectrum. Thomas referred in particular to the “questionable viability” of both Red Lion and Pacifica. If four of his colleagues were to agree with Thomas that the scarcity rationale is no longer valid, that could cause massive upheaval in virtually every aspect of the FCC’s operation.
In the meantime, broadcasters should not take the decision as a green light to start airing “R” rated movies at mid-day. The Second Circuit struck down the FCC’s policy interpreting the federal statute prohibiting “obscene, indecent or profane language” but not the statute itself. In other words, it’s still technically illegal to broadcast such fare, even if there is no obvious way in which the government could penalize it in the wake of the Second Circuit’s decision. As has always been the case, broadcasters will need to continue to exercise good judgment in their selection of programming. We, as always, will stay tuned.
Enforcement Bureau sets out on an indecency fishing expedition, or a wild goose chase – or, perhaps more accurately, a Fox hunt.
Grab your rod, bait your hook, put on your floaties – and don’t forget the sunscreen – it looks like we’re all going on a fishing expedition, thanks to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau!
Apparently determined to make the already murky area of indecency regulation even murkier, the Bureau has: (a) issued a Notice of Apparent Liability, to the tune of $25,000, to Fox because Fox’s response to a Bureau inquiry was not, in the Bureau’s eyes, responsive enough; and (b) issued more than 200 more letters of inquiry, addressed to all Fox affiliates. With that many hooks in the water, the FCC is obviously hoping to land a couple of big ones.
This latest twist in the on-going indecency saga began last January, with the airing of an episode of “American Dad”, a prime-time cartoon show. The episode at issue included a scene in which it was suggested, purely by implication and innuendo, that one of the animated characters was manually causing an animated horse to ejaculate. This prompted a campaign by at least one group, the Parents Television Council, to generate complaints about the show to the FCC and, sure enough, the Commission received more than 100,000 complaints.
The Bureau promptly shipped a Letter of Inquiry (LOI) out to Fox, asking a bunch of questions about the broadcast. Included with the LOI was a copy of one – and only one – complaint received by the FCC about the show. The complaint referred to the Fox O&O in Dallas. That licensee – again, it’s a station owned by the Fox organization – responded to the LOI.
The Fox LOI asked for a list of all Fox affiliates that had aired the show, as well as the Nielsen audience figures (organized by age group) for the broadcast, and information about any “parental guidelines” that were displayed in connection with the show. The Fox Dallas station provided information about its own broadcast, but declined to narc on any other affiliates because the only evidence of complaints included with the LOI was the single complaint letter identifying only the Dallas station. The station did acknowledge the various questions that it wasn’t answering, and explained why it wasn’t answering them.
The Bureau wrote back to Fox in March, advising that the Dallas licensee’s response didn’t get Fox off the hook. The Bureau gave Fox a generous five days in which to get back to the FCC with all the requested information. Sticking to its guns, Fox declined to respond to the second letter, although the Dallas Fox O&O did respond, providing some additional information (including Nielsen data).
So the Bureau produced one complaint (specifying the Dallas station) and it received responsive information about that station.
But the Bureau – like Alex Forrest – was not going to be ignored, so it issued the NAL fining Fox $25K for not itself answering the Bureau’s inquiries. And just to show that it really means business, the Bureau sent out LOIs to each and every Fox affiliate, asking them essentially the same questions originally posed to Fox – the new LOIs even included copies of the original Fox LOI.
The one thing the new LOIs did not include was any documentation establishing that the FCC had received any complaints about any station other than the Dallas station.
The Bureau’s obvious fishing expedition reflects a curious step backward in the FCC’s approach to indecency.
Four years ago, the full Commission – that is, the boss of the Bureau – announced that it would thereafter be taking a more “restrained” approach to indecency enforcement. In particular, the FCC would be issuing fines only to stations serving markets from which the FCC had received a complaint. The Commission has since re-stated that position several times over. (For an illustration, check out Paragraph 32 of the 2006 “omnibus” indecency decision, where the Commission referred to its “commitment to an appropriately restrained enforcement policy”. Or try Footnote 1 in the 2008 “Married By America” decision.)
Maybe the Bureau didn’t get the memo.
After all, if the Commission’s policy is not to fine stations unless the Commission has a complaint about that station (or at least that station’s market) in hand, why is the Bureau sending out letters asking which stations aired the show? Shouldn’t the Bureau first check its own files to determine what markets and/or stations were mentioned in any complaints?
In the NAL, the Bureau did attempt to justify its inquiry by saying that the FCC has the authority to engage in this kind of unbounded fishing expedition. And while the Commission does have considerable power to investigate various goings-on, the Commission – not the Bureau – has already announced the “restrained” limit on its exercise of that authority in this particular area. How, then, can the Bureau blithely ignore a policy articulated, repeatedly, by the full Commission?
And let’s not forget that the Commission’s indecency policy is currently under the microscope in two separate courts of appeals – the Second Circuit (involving the Fox case) and the Third Circuit (involving CBS). Both of those courts have already demonstrated considerable hostility to the FCC’s general indecency policy, and the FCC has defended itself by pointing to the restrained nature of its enforcement activities. The Bureau’s sweeping dragnet approach in the “American Dad” case runs dramatically counter to such claims. Ditto for the Bureau’s heavy-handed effort to slap Fox around for declining to play the Bureau’s game. If the Bureau persists with its LOIs and the $25,000 Fox fine, the Second and Third Circuits may legitimately question just how “restrained” the FCC’s policy really is – and, perhaps more dangerously from the Commission’s perspective, the courts may wonder just how reliable anything the Commission says is. (As a general rule in litigation, it’s not a good thing to be in court if the court doesn’t believe you.)
Unfortunately, the Bureau’s damn-the-torpedoes approach is representative of the arbitrariness for which the Commission’s indecency policy has been criticized for years. The problem appears to arise from the Commission’s seeming desire to be a kind of catcher in the rye, responsible for protecting everybody – and particularly kids – from all social unpleasantness. (And it bears noting that the agency’s knickers get bunched up over less-than-explicit material – “American Dad” being a case in point, since even the single complaint that the FCC has released so far acknowledges that the supposedly offensive material involved only innuendo.) The Commission’s authority to achieve such all-encompassing womb-like protection is, at best, doubtful – but that hasn’t stopped it from trying.
Ideally, the pending Second and Third Circuit cases will be resolved relatively soon, which may likely tee up one more trip to the Supreme Court, which in turn could resolve many of the longstanding indecency questions. Until that happens, since the Commission’s staff is, by most accounts, committed to stay its current course, broadcasters will continue to occasionally find themselves on the wrong end of the FCC’s fishing lines.
Constitutional challenge to the FCC’s indecency policy is center stage in Fox’s second trip to appeals court, judges appear unsympathetic to FCC arguments
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And so it was that the FCC trudged back into the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on January 13 to defend the “fleeting expletives” portion of its indecency regime one more time. When last the Commission fought this particular fight in this particular arena, things didn’t go so well for the agency. From what we saw, the Commission is not likely to fare any better this time around.
Back in 2006, in the wake of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl flash, the Commission determined that fleeting uses of “fuck” and “shit” in two live awards shows aired by Fox in 2002 and 2003 violated the prohibition on indecent broadcasts. Fox appealed the decision to the Second Circuit, which overturned the FCC on non-constitutional grounds. According to the court, the FCC failed to explain why it had chosen to abandon a longstanding policy of not penalizing the occasional “fleeting” use of expletives. As we reported here last April, the Supreme Court, having agreed to hear the FCC’s appeal of the Second Circuit ruling, reversed the Second Circuit and shipped the case back down for further consideration.
While the FCC may have been pleased to have won a temporary reprieve from the Supremes, any Commission elation must have been tempered by the grim reality that it was about to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.
When the Second Circuit gave the FCC the big thumbs down in 2007, its opinion was not limited to the relatively narrow non-constitutional law question on which the case was ultimately decided. Rather, the court took the somewhat unorthodox step of offering a detailed analysis of the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency policy, an analysis which brutally ripped that policy apart. The constitutional analysis was what lawyers refer to as “dicta” – meaning that it technically wasn’t an essential aspect of the court’s holding, and so had no precedential impact. Still, that analysis clearly telegraphed what the Second Circuit thought of the FCC’s policy, constitutionally speaking.
So when the Supremes sent the case back to the Second Circuit (the logical expectation being that the parties would re-address the constitutional issue), the likely outcome of that second visit to the Second Circuit was anticipated to be a foregone conclusion.
And after the January 13 oral argument, it’s looking like that foregone conclusion is a pretty good bet: many observers expect that the Second Circuit will hold the “fleeting expletives” to be unconstitutional. (You don't have to trust us on this one -- the oral argument is available on-line for your viewing enjoyment.)
The issue most troubling to the Second Circuit this time around appeared to be the FCC’s failure to provide a coherent and specific standard as to when something was indecent. One judge characterized the Commission’s indecency decisions since the Supreme Court’s 1978 Pacifica decision as a matter of “bewildering vagueness”. The Second Circuit panel peppered FCC counsel with hypothetical programs they worried might be found indecent under the current regime. For instance, Judge Leval (the source of the “bewildering vagueness” characterization) asked whether a production of Hamlet might be found indecent, and Judge Hall queried whether a news report on Wednesday’s oral arguments would be allowed to include the original uncensored clips from the 2002 and 2003 broadcasts.
The FCC’s counsel suggested in response that both of those examples would probably not be found held indecent, noting that the Commission “bends over backwards” to protect news programs and editorial decisions. The Court, reflecting apparent skepticism, asked pointedly whether the First Amendment allows it to rely on an agency’s promise to “bend over backwards.”
Counsel for Fox (and NBC and CBS, who participated as intervenors), as well as the judges, also expressed some concern over the impact of the FCC’s enforcement policy on smaller local broadcasters. The limited resources of small broadcasters, the argument went, might prevent them from implementing a delay system – and, without that safety net, the threat of enhanced penalties could lead them to self-censor their broadcasts, and particularly their news coverage. The court seemed unconvinced (as Justice Scalia seemed to suggest in his opinion) that this concern might be alleviated because folks living in smaller towns were less likely (at least according to Scalia) than “foul-mouthed glitteratae from Hollywood” to use such expletives.
The Court and FCC counsel also parted ways on whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Pacifica governs the current case. The FCC clung to that decision, claiming that Pacifica’s approval of indecency regulation, combined with the FCC’s (supposed) guidance since then about what is and is not indecent, foreclosed the argument that the current regime was unconstitutionally vague. The Second Circuit strongly disagreed, with Judge Leval at one point telling the FCC to “stop telling us Pacifica ruled on this – it didn’t,” and advising Commission counsel that if he didn’t think the Pacifica decision was extremely narrow, he needed to read it again. Judge Leval explained that whereas Pacifica narrowly approved of the regulation of a specific list of “seven dirty words”, it had not addressed the “great miasma” of things now regulated in the “broadness of the Commission’s menace.”
When the discussion turned to the supposed purposes of the indecency policy, things didn’t get better for the agency. The Commission claimed that the main purpose of the policy was to protect children from hearing expletives, to which Judge Hall asked in response how that purpose was served by the “exception” for news programming, questioning whether children could tell the difference in the use of expletives in different types of programming. The Court also queried FCC counsel about why use of the V-Chip was not a better, less-restrictive solution to enable parents to protect their children from broadcast expletives. Judge Leval asked whether, if technology exists that could allow parents to filter programming for their children, parents with the lowest tolerance for questionable language – those who may not let their children outside due to fear they might “hear a nasty” – should be allowed to dictate what other viewers and listeners should hear.
While the Second Circuit’s decision probably won’t be issued for a couple of months, there is little doubt that it will find the FCC’s current indecency regime, at least as it applies to “fleeting expletives”, unconstitutional. Of course, that is not likely to be the end of things. The next decision out of the Second Circuit is almost certain to be appealed to the Supreme Court, which will have the opportunity to address the constitutional issues it declined to address the last time.
Meanwhile, moving along on a parallel track is CBS’s appeal of the FCC’s decision fining it for broadcast of Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004. As we all know, the Third Circuit initially found that fine to be arbitrary and capricious, but was asked by the Supreme Court to rethink that decision in light of the remand of the Second Circuit’s original decision. Oral arguments in the Third Circuit are scheduled for February 23, which could mean a new Third Circuit decision sometime in the late spring or summer. It is possible that both Courts’ decisions could be consolidated in a single Supreme Court case, probably in the 2010-2011 term.
[Blogmeister’s note: As part of our overall coverage of the on-going development of FCC indecency law and policy, we present here a nitty-gritty synopsis of the six separate opinions issued by the Supreme Court in FCC v. Fox. Veteran court-watcher and First Amendment guru Kevin Goldberg has read all 72 pages, so you don’t have to . . .]
Just because the fortune-teller got it right does not necessarily mean that we have to like it when the accurately-predicted future becomes present reality. Like when we correctly read the tea leaves in the wake of the November 4, 2008 oral arguments in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. The Supreme Court has – by the 5-4 margin we predicted (though we reversed the positions of Justices Kennedy and Souter) – overturned the earlier ruling against the Commission by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The Supreme Court ruled that the FCC did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when the Commission suddenly, and without prior warning to broadcasters, reversed 25 years of agency precedent by ruling that “fleeting expletives” broadcast on the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards violated the indecency rules. The Court did not take any position as to whether the FCC’s application of the indecency rules violated the First Amendment.
Our post-argument impressions on the case (which include a summary of key quotes from the oral arguments) and Harry Cole’s early thoughts on the Court's decision offer significant background. Here’s a summary of the Court’s majority, concurring and dissenting opinions.
Majority Opinion (Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Thomas and Kennedy)
Justice Scalia wrote the Court’s majority opinion. He commenced by tracing the history of the Commission’s application of the indecency statute (18 U.S.C. §1464) from its start in the 1975 Pacifica decision (addressing a broadcast of George Carlin’s famous “Filthy Words” monologue, a ruling that eventually ended up in the 1978 Supreme Court decision in F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation).
(We won’t go into all that legal history here. If you’re interested, contact our colleague Joe Di Scipio, who has put together a way cool PowerPoint presentation tracing the recent development of indecency regulation.)
Scalia’s majority opinion held that the APA does not require an agency to engage in a “heightened review” of its prior policy decisions before reversing course on those policies. Instead, according to Scalia, an agency must only (1) acknowledge that it is changing its policies and (2) show good reasons for the change. (In Scalia’s view, the Second Circuit had improperly required such “heightened review”.) Justice Scalia also flatly smacked down any notion that heightened review is required when the change affects a constitutional right, as suggested by Fox’s counsel during oral argument.
Applying this new, minimal standard of accountability, Scalia found that the Commission had not acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner. The Commission’s forthright acknowledgment that it was “break[ing] new ground”, combined with an equally forthright disavowal of earlier, contrary, decisions as “no longer good law”, was sufficient, especially where the FCC hadn’t imposed an actual penalty. He further found that the Commission’s change – at least on a theory that allowing fleeting utterances would lead to more fleeting utterances – was perfectly rational because technology to bleep out these words is widely available.
The final section of the Scalia opinion garnered the support of only three other Justices, as Justice Kennedy did not join this section. In that section Scalia criticized the opinions of his dissenting colleagues. He disagreed with Justice Breyer’s dissenting sentiment that the Court must engage in increased oversight of an independent agency because these agencies are “less political”. According to Scalia, an independent agency endures a different kind of oversight, with Congressional oversight replacing Presidential oversight. He pointed out that the FCC’s change in its indecency enforcement was directly traceable to Congressional pressure.
Scalia also criticized Breyer’s fear that small broadcasters will be unduly burdened by this decision because they do not have the means to purchase and employ technology to prevent the broadcast of fleeting expletives. The Trenton-born, Queens-raised, primarily metropolis-living Scalia placed his faith in the goodness of small town folk who will know how to check their tongues during live television broadcasts. As Scalia sees it, absent the threat of the utterance of a fleeting expletive in locally-produced programming, small market broadcasters really face no enforcement dangers at all, because the Commission has repeatedly said it will not act on utterances emanating from live breaking news events in national programming.
And, finally, the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency policy? Scalia simply didn’t go there, other than to say that the issue could (and likely would) be raised on remand to the Second Circuit.
Concurring Opinion (Justice Thomas)
Justice Thomas concurred as only Thomas could: by raising an issue that nobody really wanted to discuss, questioning the continuing validity of the “scarcity doctrine” (the underlying rationale for the FCC’s regulation of broadcast content).
He found this continued restriction on the First Amendment right of broadcasters troubling for two reasons: (1) the Court adopted in 1969 in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. F.C.C. and reaffirmed in Pacifica a rule that had no basis in the original text of the constitutional (because, of course, little boxes electronically providing music, news and other information were not known to the Founding Fathers); and (2) even if one assumes that the scarcity of physical spectrum does justify some regulation of broadcasters’ content, the availability of multiple electronic information sources – digital television/cable television/satellite television/the Internet/iPod/and God-knows-what – means there’s simply no scarcity anymore. Thomas’s opinion invited reconsideration of Red Lion and Pacifica (and, one might argue, previewed what would be a key fifth vote in favor of striking down regulation of indecent content as violating of the First Amendment).
Concurring Opinion (Justice Kennedy)
Justice Kennedy joined all but one part of the majority opinion. He expressed some sympathy for Breyer’s view that heightened review of an agency’s decision is necessary when a longstanding rule or policy is being changed. In Kennedy’s words, the necessary question is “whether an agency’s reasons for the change, when viewed in light of the data available to it, and when informed by the experience and expertise of the agency, suffice to demonstrate that the new policy rests on principles that are rational, neutral and in accord with the agency's proper understanding of its authority”. Where there is an established body of evidence supporting an agency’s policy, any change in that policy must be overwhelmingly supported by new evidence which shows why circumstances have changed.
Kennedy found that FCC met this standard (whether or not that standard was “heightened”). While the FCC’s reasons for the change in its fleeting expletive policy were not, in Kennedy’s view, so “precise, detailed, or elaborate as to be a model for agency explanation”, they nonetheless “were the sort of reasons an agency may consider and act upon.”
What’s particularly interesting is that, while Kennedy may have won the battle for the FCC on this particular application of the indecency rules, he may end up winning the war against future agency actions of this ilk. If one adds Justice Kennedy’s vote to the four dissenting votes, we might see the Court apply the higher standard in the next case of agency deviation from a prior policy position.
Dissenting Opinion (Justice Stevens)
In addition to joining Breyer’s dissent, Justice Stevens wrote separately to emphasize two points. First, he disagreed with the majority’s assessment that the FCC need not fully explain a departure from its prior interpretation of the indecency rules. Second, the Pacifica decision was not as broad and sweeping as the majority thinks it was (Stevens, of anyone on the current Court, would be the one to know: he is not only the sole current member who was on the Court in 1978, but he wrote the majority opinion in Pacifica).
His primary quarrel with Scalia regarded the extent of the Court’s holding in Pacifica. He interpreted Scalia as believing that a proper interpretation of the Pacifica decision would treat as “indecent” any expletive that has a sexual or excretory origin. Justice Stevens reemphasized his view of the very limited nature of Pacifica: that it related only to Carlin’s use of the words as broadcast in the middle of the day when children were likely to be in the radio listening audience. That limited holding was supposed to be the outer limit of the FCC’s indecency rules. And it was... for nearly 30 years. Justice Stevens could not square the Pacifica holding and FCC’s subsequent interpretation with this Court’s approval of an FCC action that removes any distinction between the use of these words in a sexual or excretory fashion and the use of the same words in a non-sexual, non-excretory, clearly-just-a-profanity-for-the-sake-of-profanity fashion.
Dissenting Opinion (Justice Ginsburg)
Also joining Breyer’s dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote to chastise the Court for avoiding the First Amendment issues presented in this case. Her short, but in our minds, sweet, opinion, questioned whether punishment for these fleeting expletives would be consistent with the First Amendment. Again, viewing this in conjunction with the other dissenters and Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion, one might wonder whether the indecency regulations will survive for the long haul.
Dissenting Opinion (Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg)
Justice Breyer had problems with both the legal standard outlined by the majority and the way in which the FCC justified its departure from the prior indecency decisions.
His core belief was that, when changing a policy position, an independent agency should be held to a higher standard of review than when it is instituting a new policy or rule. Departing from an established rule requires proper explanation of both the rationale for the new rule and the reasons for departing from the established rule. Simply put: an agency must be able to answer the question “Why did you change?”
The FCC did not – and could not – answer this question. When it abandoned its previous, largely “hands-off-fleeting-expletives” policy, it changed a 25-year-old policy with little to no explanation for its actions. What little explanation the FCC offered was lacking in basis. Its entire explanation consisted of two sentences amounting to nothing more in effect than “we think our new approach is consistent with Pacifica”.
As discussed above, Breyer feared the impact of the change on small broadcasters, who may not be able to afford and employ the technology cited by the majority as a relatively easy means of avoiding liability for the broadcast of fleeting expletives. The adverse impact is especially disturbing given the special importance of local broadcasting and its already-existing financial troubles. Breyer supported these claims with a detailed, facts-and-figures type inquiry he would demand of the FCC or any other independent agency.
Finally, the dissent attacked the majority’s constitutional avoidance argument, saying that the doctrine has no place where an agency engages in a constitutionally suspect application of its rules. He would remand the case to the FCC and require the agency to explain its actions in light of the First Amendment concerns that are clearly applicable.
So there you have it: six opinions and 72 pages, in which the Court upheld the FCC's radical change in policy with regard to the broadcast of "fleeting expletives", but seemed to signal the possibility of greater oversight of future agency reversals of policy positions - and almost invited broadcasters to challenge the indecency rules and other content -based regulations on First Amendment grounds.
(Justices' photos from the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)
First reaction to the Big Decision
[Blogmeister's note: Our crack team covered the oral argument in Fox last November, and will be providing additional coverage of the Court's decision released April 28. The following is one commentator's view of the landscape.]
The Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited decision in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., the case involving the application of the FCC’s indecency policy to “fleeting expletives”. By a 5-4 vote, the Justices concluded that the FCC’s action was consistent with its statutory obligations under the Administrative Procedure Act. Accordingly, they reversed the contrary decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and remanded the case back to the Second Circuit. Score one for the Commission.
While any decision favoring the Commission’s indecency policy in any way is troubling, the good news here is that the Supreme Court’s ruling changes very little on the indecency front. To the contrary, its primary effect in the indecency area is to set the stage for the next, and far more important, act in this long-running drama.
But the news is not all good. Lurking behind the high profile “celebrities talking dirty on TV” allure of the case is a major shift in a seemingly mundane legal doctrine, a shift that could affect FCC regulatory activity in all respects for years to come. So while many commentators may choose to dwell on the obvious “indecency” aspects of the ruling, the real importance of this decision lies elsewhere.
As most everybody probably knows, this case involved the FCC’s determination that Fox had broadcast indecency during two awards shows. In one, Cher commented, “I’ve also had critics for the last 40 years saying that I was on my way out every year. Right. So fuck ‘em”. In the other, Nicole Richie said, “Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It’s not so fucking simple.”
The Commission had historically declined to go after the occasional, single use of such words as “fuck” and “shit”, uses which are referred to familiarly as “fleeting expletives”. Here, however, the Commission changed course and held that Fox’s broadcast of fleeting expletives was a violation. Fox appealed the ruling, raising two basic arguments. First, according to Fox, the FCC’s about-face on fleeting expletives was arbitrary and capricious, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) – that is, the FCC failed to explain adequately why it was abandoning its previous policy. Second, Fox argued that even if the action survived the APA attack, the FCC’s new policy violates the First Amendment.
The Second Circuit in New York agreed with both of Fox’s arguments. But, because courts generally shy away from making constitutional determinations if they don’t have to – for the same reasons that you don’t undergo brain surgery if your problem can be effectively treated with less invasive and dangerous methods – the Second Circuit’s actual ruling was limited to the APA ground. That didn’t stop the Second Circuit, however, from including an extended discussion – referred to as “dicta” – in which it made clear that the Second Circuit was very skeptical of the constitutionality of the FCC’s new approach.
The Second Circuit decision effectively stopped the Commission’s indecency juggernaut in its tracks. The FCC asked the Supremes to review the case, and the Supremes agreed.
In his majority opinion, Justice Scalia held that, contrary to the Second Circuit’s view, the FCC did explain its change in policies, at least enough to satisfy the APA. Writing for himself, Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas, Kennedy and Alito, Scalia concluded that the Commission had recognized that it was shifting course and it had articulated sufficient reasons why it believed the new course to better. So as a matter of administrative law, the new fleeting expletives policy was properly adopted. (Of course, the other members of the Court – Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Souter and Breyer – did not agree, but without that crucial fifth vote, all they could do was issue dissenting opinions.) Since the Second Circuit’s decision was limited to the APA/administrative law issue, the FCC won and the indecency policy lives on.
At least for a while.
Consistently with the doctrine of avoiding constitutional questions if at all possible, neither Scalia nor any other Justice (there were a total of four additional concurring and/or dissenting opinions) addressed the constitutionality of the new fleeting expletives policy. While the Second Circuit opinion had included the dicta discussion on that point, the Supreme Court recognized that dicta has no actual legal effect, so the Supreme Court could simply ignore it.
As a result, the case now goes back to the Second Circuit for “further proceedings consistent with [the Supreme Court’s] opinion.”
But, thanks to the dicta portion of the Second Circuit’s decision, we all have a pretty good idea of what is likely to happen when the case toddles on back there: presumably, Fox will re-present its constitutional arguments and, if the Second Circuit still sees those arguments the way its saw them in 2008, we should be seeing a new Second Circuit decision declaring the FCC’s indecency policy to be unconstitutional. If and when that happens, we can expect the Commission to seek review, again, by the Supreme Court.
So the Supremes’ decision in Fox does little to alter the landscape in the short term. While the Commission may feel fortified by Scalia’s decision – and Acting Chairman Copps wasted no time in crowing about it – the fact is that the fleeting expletives policy is still not out of the woods by a long shot. Getting rid of the APA arguments merely clears the path toward some final resolution of the constitutional issues, possibly in the next couple of years.
If and when that happens, it’s reasonable to assume that the Second Circuit will stick to the position (outlined in its earlier dicta) that the policy can’t survive First Amendment analysis. Such a ruling could bring the case back to the Supremes. Interestingly, in his concurring opinion, Thomas expresses the view that the “scarcity rationale” – i.e., the traditional justification for governmental regulation of broadcast content – may no longer have any validity (if it ever had any validity at all – according to Thomas, the primary cases in which that rationale was articulated by the Court “were unconvincing when they were issued.”). Additionally, while Kennedy technically joined Scalia’s opinion, his own separate opinion oddly seems to lean more toward Breyer’s dissent than Scalia’s majority.
As a result, there is at least some reason to speculate that the Court’s decision on the APA ground may not necessarily provide any reliable indication of how the Court would rule on the far more important constitutional ground.
At this point, though, we are off in the land of speculation. Lots of things could happen between now and whenever the constitutional argument might make it back to the Supremes. Still, while the reversal of the Second Circuit’s APA decision may be disappointing to many, there are enough glimmers of hope on the constitutional side that the immediate impact of the Supreme Court’s decision on indecency regulation can be shrugged off as very limited.
A major APA shift
The same cannot be said of the impact of Scalia’s APA analysis on FCC regulatory activities as a whole. And that’s the real story in the Supreme Court’s decision.
As noted above, the APA requires that the actions of federal agencies, including the FCC, not be arbitrary or capricious. More than 25 years ago, the Supreme Court interpreted that requirement, holding that an agency must “examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation” for actions it takes. Since then, numerous courts of appeals have read that standard, in the context of changes in agency policy, to require that the agency also explain why the reasons underlying its original policy are no longer dispositive and why the new policy is preferable to the policy being abandoned. That gloss on the Supreme Court’s 1983 decision served to assure a measure of stability in agency policies, since the agency had to be able to explain why a new policy was preferable.
But Scalia’s majority opinion in Fox throws that gloss out the window. The Second Circuit’s rationale for the APA portion of its decision was based to a significant degree on the fact that the Commission failed to explain why its old fleeting expletives policy was no longer valid. The Second Circuit’s approach was consistent with case law developed over more than a quarter of a century. Characterizing that approach (and the lower courts’ consistent interpretation of the APA on which it was based) as imposing a “heightened standard” or a “more searching review”, Scalia declares that that interpretation is, well, just wrong. According to Scalia, when an agency decides to change an established policy,
it suffices that the new policy is permissible under the [agency’s governing] statute, that there are good reasons for it, and that the agency believes it to be better. [emphasis in original]
In other words, the Commission can change its policies without necessarily explaining why the reasons which underlay its to-be-abandoned policy are no longer operative or persuasive. Instead, the Commission can say simply “we prefer the new policy”, and that may satisfy the APA.
This is a huge and ominous change which accords the Commission potentially vast latitude to engage in largely unexplained reversals of policy. This new take on the APA’s requirements opens the door for regulatory zigging and zagging of all sorts in all areas of FCC activity. And this new take is, as of the release of the Supreme Court’s Fox opinion, the law of the land. No need to await any decisions on remand or further review by any court – Scalia’s pronouncement is now the way it is.
So the Fox decision does have sweeping effect, but not in the indecency area where we all might have expected it. The indecency aspect of the ruling doesn’t effect any fundamental changes. But on the APA side, its repercussions could be profound and long-lasting for everyone subject to FCC regulation.
Bird flipped on the Peacock, complaints ensue
When is a finger just a finger, and when is it a potentially multi-million dollar fine? NBC may well find out soon enough. At least 18 complaints have reportedly been lodged with the FCC for the Peacock Net’s live broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards on January 11. The gripes involve actor Mickey Rourke’s acceptance speech and, more specifically, producer Darren Aronofsky’s pantomimed response during that speech, a response which NBC dutifully broadcast (for those of you on the West Coast who got a two-second black screen, YouTube is your friend – for research only, of course).
We can’t recall a single instance in the indecency era in which a televised image of a middle finger provoked an enforcement response from the Commission. While we highly doubt that the airwaves have been completely void of such gestures over the last 30 years, the lack of any cases involving such a gesture shouldn’t be surprising: after all, the FCC’s rules define broadcast indecency as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” Does flipping the bird really fit in there? We would think not, but then again, we thought that a millisecond flash of nipple was OK and a fleeting view of an attractive woman’s buttocks might be, too . . . and the FCC disagreed. So who knows?
There’s no word yet whether the FCC will take any action at all here, but the stage has been set. Just how far will the Commission be inclined to stretch the long arm (or finger) of the law?
Ordure in the Court, Part II
Elsewhere on this blog we have posted reports about the oral argument in FCC v. Fox, the first broadcast indecency case to reach the Supreme Court in 30 years. From our notes taken during the argument, we have mined the following nuggets:
- Justice Ginsburg noted that there was “no rhyme or reason” in the FCC’s application of its indecency policy.
- In a brief reference to the “scarcity rationale” which has historically been invoked to justify content regulation of broadcasting, one justice suggested that that rationale was not involved in the seminal Pacifica case (the 1978 Supreme Court decision which upheld the FCC’s first enforcement action under its then-new indecency policy). In response, Justice Stevens pointed out that scarcity was indeed a basis for Red Lion (the 1969 Supreme Court decision upholding the Fairness Doctrine), and Red Lion, in turn, was a basis for Pacifica. No one in the courtroom was in a position to argue with that statement, since Stevens unquestionably knows whereof he speaks: he was the author of the plurality opinion in Pacifica.
- Speaking of the scarcity rationale, Justice Ginsburg pointed out that Pacifica arose “before the Internet”, an observation which suggests that she may believe that the explosion in available media sources over the last 10-15 years might undermine the scarcity rationale.
- When asked by Ginsburg how the FCC determines what the “community standards” for indecency are, the Commission’s lawyer responded that the FCC applies its “collective experience”.
- In a discussion of whether the “community” is more tolerant of certain words today than it was in 1978, Justice Scalia bemoaned the “coarsening of manners” which he apparently perceives around him – and which he apparently attributes, at least in part, to broadcast content – and indicated that the expletives under consideration are not used “in polite society”.
- Justice Stevens, who got the indecency ball rolling with his opinion in Pacifica, asked whether the determination of whether or not a particular word or term is indecent is dependent on whether it is “hilarious” -- a proposition which Justice Scalia re-stated (probably sarcastically) to ask whether bawdy jokes might be judged not indecent “if they’re really good”. Later, Stevens also inquired of the FCC’s lawyer whether the word “dung” is indecent. (Like any good lawyer, FCC counsel answered with a solid maybe.)
Three FHH attorneys who have followed the ups and downs of the FCC’s indecency policies over the years attended the Supreme Court oral argument in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., the first broadcast indecency case to reach the high court in 30 years. They filed the following reports with www.CommLawBlog.com.
Jeff Gee reports:
Anyone hoping to hear Justice Ginsburg drop the F-bomb in open court was sorely disappointed as the U.S. Supreme Court held oral arguments on the FCC's indecency rules. Justices and attorneys alike proceeded without a single utterance (fleeting or otherwise) of any of Carlin's famous seven dirty words. Instead, the audience was treated to debate on the finer points of the Administrative Procedure Act. What about the part where the FCC's rules violate First Amendment? Oddly enough, that might not matter too much.
As readers of our Memo to Clients may recall, the case being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court (formally titled FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc.) arose from a decision made by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Second Circuit overturned the FCC's rules prohibiting "isolated" or "fleeting" indecent utterances solely on the grounds that the FCC failed to adequately justify its rules. Although the Second Circuit's decision also suggested that the FCC’s rules might not pass a First Amendment review, the Second Circuit made clear that its decision was based solely on administrative law and not constitutional law. As a result, the issue before the Supreme Court technically was not whether the FCC's rules are constitutional or even workable. Rather, the issue before the Court was whether the FCC sufficiently followed the rules applicable to Federal agencies as they make policy.
Nevertheless, the stalwart Carter Phillips (arguing on behalf Fox) urged that it is necessary to acknowledge the fact that the FCC’s indecency rules directly regulate speech. Justices Stevens, Breyer and Ginsburg seemed somewhat receptive to this, asking probing questions about how the FCC's rules actually work and how broadcast stations are supposed to operate under those rules. Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts, on the other hand, were skeptical of any suggestion that a broader view of the case was warranted.
So where does this leave our friendly neighborhood broadcasters? Pretty much stuck as we have been for the past several years. The FCC has indicated that, unless forced to do so by looming statute of limitations deadlines, it won't issue any new indecency decisions until it gets more guidance from the courts. That guidance may be years in the making, however. If the Supreme Court decides this case on purely administrative grounds, the rules themselves will have to go back to the FCC and, inevitably, come back up through the courts again. In the meantime, broadcasters will continue to be held accountable to rules that Justice Ginsburg, for one, repeatedly described as lacking any "rhyme or reason."
Kevin Goldberg reports:
I won't provide anything resembling a summary of the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. (Case Number 07-582), as that’s been done in several major publications. Instead, I'll focus in on two key indicators that I – and others – had identified as possible predictors as to the ultimate result: (1) the use of the key "dirty words" during the arguments; and (2) how (and how often) the give-and-take veered away from the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and into constitutional issues.
As to the first, a number of veteran observers believed that it would be necessary for Fox's counsel, Carter Phillips, to use the actual "fleeting expletives" (in this particular case, those would be “fuck” and “shit”) in front of the Justices as a way of "demystifiying" them. Many prognosticators felt that the second indicator (i.e., references to constitutional rather than more pedestrian APA considerations) was probably more important. According to that theory, the more the Justices discussed the First Amendment, the more likely they would be to uphold the lower court's decision, even though the constitutional issue was, as Jeff notes above, technically not before the court.
The results of my own informal tally clearly do not bode well for Fox supporters. First, nobody actually uttered the words "fuck" or "shit"; instead the terms "fleeting expletive" or "swear words" were interspersed with "F-word" and "S-word". Second, the court refused to engage on the separate issue of the First Amendment, despite Carter Phillips' valiant, though perilous, effort to highlight the importance of this fundamental right. Here's a scorecard:
4 (Souter, Scalia (2), Ginsburg)
Carter Phillips (Counsel for Fox)
Gregory Garre (Solicitor General of the United States, on behalf of the FCC)
In other words, this case was pretty much the staid affair that many predicted and that Fox might have feared. The most intellectually stimulating portion of the morning clearly worked against Fox, as Phillips almost got boxed into a corner by Justice Scalia as Phillips tried to raise the First Amendment issue. During a line of questioning from Justices Scalia and Souter, Phillips was asked whether the fact that this is a First Amendment-related case had any bearing on the APA issues involved. Phillips responded essentially that the constitutional issues would be impossible to ignore, differentiating this case from the routine APA case where an agency was dealing with "oil pipelines".
Scalia asked whether Phillips was advocating that an agency must show a higher standard of justification for departing from established agency practice when dealing with constitutional issues rather than simpler administrative issues. To answer yes would have clearly violated the "Ashwander" doctrine which states that a court should avoid constitutional issues whenever possible. Unfortunately, we all know that real life decisions are informed by the facts of the case and anybody following this case knows it is different than the typical "oil pipeline" decision – as Justice Ginsburg stated at one point, to ignore the First Amendment issues at stake is just ignoring the "big elephant in the room." But it was impossible as well to advocate for an explicitly different standard under the APA.
Broadcasters may take hope that Justice Breyer, usually a strong supporter of agency deference under the APA, also seemed skeptical of the FCC's departure from its earlier practice (one described by Mr. Phillips as going from a refusal to condemn fleeting expletives to punishment for fleeting expletives unless there is a contextual reason not to punish). He clearly worried about the burden on broadcasters forced to institute a tape delay as a result of this decision and when it might be excusable, as Mr. Garre and Justice Scalia hinted it might be, to avoid using a tape delay and still remain free from punishment should an expletive find its way to the air.
I think it's pretty clear that, no matter what, this case will be a 5-4 or 6-3 decision. Based on what I saw during oral argument, here's how I see each Justice voting (with bold and/or caps indicating my confidence in the pick):
The good news, perhaps, is that the Court would likely remand to the 2nd Circuit which, in turn, would remand to the FCC. The Commission, acting under a new administration, might not pursue enforcement as vigorously. However, we have seen the Democrats on the current Commission take a very hard line on indecency as well, so this case could very well be back before the Supreme Court before Election Day 2012 . . .
Harry Cole reports:
While many may have thought it impossible for the FCC’s indecency policies to become even more confused and confusing, the Supreme Court dispelled such notions during its oral argument.
The policies have already been in an odd state of suspended animation since at least last year, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held them to be unlawful on purely non-constitutional grounds. (Not to get all legalese and technical here, the Second Circuit held that, in shifting from decades of tolerance for “fleeting expletives” to a new zero-tolerance approach, the FCC failed to dot all its I’s and cross all its T’s, as required by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).)
But having hung and drawn the indecency beast as unlawful under the APA, the Second Circuit then quartered it by providing an extensive discussion of why, even if the indecency rules survived APA analysis, they were still probably unconstitutional. This discussion of First Amendment rights, while interesting, did not affect the Court’s decision, which the Court emphasized was strictly on APA grounds. (The First Amendment discussion was what lawyers call – Legal Latin Alert!!! – “obiter dicta”.)
At this point the FCC could have simply accepted the Second Circuit’s APA-based decision, taken another look at its “fleeting expletives” policy and maybe tried to provide a more APA-compliant rationale for that policy. Of course, even if it were successful in such an effort, the FCC could then expect to face a First Amendment challenge which, from the Second Circuit’s constitutional dicta, the FCC would likely lose.
Alternatively, the FCC could have asked the Supreme Court to review the Second Circuit’s decision. But since that decision was purely APA-based, the best the FCC could expect from the Supremes would be a decision that the Second Circuit’s APA analysis was wrong and that the indecency policy was properly developed by the FCC. Ordinarily, since the Second Circuit’s constitutional discussion amounted to nothing more than non-decisional dicta, the Supreme Court would avoid any consideration of that discussion.
But, also ordinarily, the Supreme Court prefers to address heavy-weight constitutional cases, not prosaic APA issues. So when the FCC went with Plan B and asked the Supremes to review the case, and when the Supremes agreed to do so, a number of observers suspected that the High Court might choose to wade into the murky constitutional waters which the Second Circuit had roiled.
Not so fast. From the oral argument in the Supremes, it is not at all clear why the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case or what we might expect to come from their decision. As Brothers Gee and Goldberg report, above, a number of Justices – notably Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts – seemed to be harshly resistant to any talk of First Amendment concerns, while others (particularly Justice Ginsburg) seemed to say that consideration of constitutional questions is unavoidable here.
The likely result, it seems, will be a split decision which could, and likely will, mean several additional years of uncertainty in the indecency arena. While it would be nice if the Supreme Court would take this opportunity, here and now, to provide clear guidance as to the proper constitutional metes and bounds of indecency regulation, the oral argument provided no real hope that such guidance is likely. (Cautionary note: Trying to guess a case’s outcome based on oral argument is a fool’s errand. Oral arguments are often marked by devil’s advocacy, hypothesizing, the occasional inadvertent misstatement, and considerable rhetorical inexactness, all of which can lead to wild misinterpretations. That, of course, has never stopped us . . .) Rather, it looks like we can look forward to continued lack of clear guidelines in this area for the foreseeable future.
This may be a good time to invest in tape delay technology.
Fox oral argument in Supremes set for November 4
In planning your Election Day activities this Fall, you might want to pencil in a stop by the U.S. Supreme Court to catch the oral argument in the Fox v. FCC indecency case. (Read about the case in our earlier post.) It’s currently scheduled for the first argument slot of the day on Tuesday, November 4. On argument days the Court convenes promptly at 10:00 a.m. Doors open at 9:30 a.m., but the line generally starts to form long before that – so vote super early and then drop on by the Court to stand in line, soak up some atmosphere, and hope to get a good seat. Need directions? Check out the Court's website for maps, directions and other useful information. But heads up -- you are not permitted to carry ANYTHING into the courtroom, so leave those Blackberrys, cellphones, umbrellas, newspapers, lunch boxes, brief cases, etc., etc., etc. back at home. (The Court does provide a coat-check service, if you don't mind fighting through a rugby-like scrum to try to retrieve your belongings.)
Indecency appeals – FCC now 0-2 – In a long-awaited decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the FCC’s order holding that CBS and its affiliates had broadcast indecency in the notorious 2004 Super Bowl half-time show featuring Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. The Court found that the FCC had had a longstanding policy not to penalize the occasional fleeting instance of possible indecency and that the Commission had not adequately explained why it chose to depart from that policy when it whacked the CBS folks for the half-second exposure of La Jackson’s right breast. The Court’s decision was consistent with the Second Circuit’s decision in the Fox case, although unlike the Second Circuit, the Third Circuit did not suggest that the Commission’s indecency policy is unconstitutional.
It’s not clear where this case will go from here. The Court remanded the matter back to the FCC for further consideration – so if the FCC wants to try to take another crack at explaining its abandonment of the fleeting expletive policy, it could conceivably do so. But that policy is already before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Fox case, so it’s unlikely that the Commission will bother to try to tweak its policy before Chief Justice
Roberts and his pals get their crack at it. It would seem more likely that the Commission might try to bring the CBS case up to the Supremes, to be heard at the same time as the Second Circuit/Fox case which is already there. There is, of course, no guarantee that the Supremes would take the CBS case, but the FCC might think that the image of Ms. Jackson’s anatomy broadcast out to gazillions of football fans presents a stronger case for heavy-handed enforcement than does the situation in Fox (which, you will recall, involves ad lib remarks by
Whatever happens, the Third Circuit’s decision provides further confirmation that the Commission’s indecency policy in the wake of the 2004 Super Bowl has been a dramatic, and unjustified, over-reaction.
Earlier today, the federal court of appeals for the 3rd Circuit overturned the FCC's $550,000 fine on CBS for the broadcast of Janet Jackson's infamous 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show.
The Third Circuit overturned the FCC's decision on much the same grounds as the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the FCC's "Golden Globes" decision. Specifically, the Third Circuit held that the FCC could not abruptly abandon its long-standing policy of restrained enforcement of its indecency rules without sufficient notice of the change in policy or a reasonable justification for the change. Because the FCC failed to provide such notice or justification, its decision could not stand.
In addition, the Third Circuit found that the FCC improperly held the CBS stations liable for the actions of Ms. Jackson and fellow performer Justin Timberlake. CBS argued (the Third Circuit agreed) that Ms. Jackson and Mr. Timberlake were independent contractors and not employees for the purposes of that broadcast. Thus, CBS argued, the CBS stations should not have been held responsible for actions of individuals that were not its employees.
The FCC argued that, regardless of whether or not Ms. Jackson and Mr. Timberlake were employees, a broadcast licensee is in and of itself responsible for what is broadcast on its station. Although the Third Circuit found that such "strict liability" was appropriate in some circumstances, cases involving the First Amendment require the FCC to prove some degree of "scienter". "Scienter" roughly means "prior knowledge" or "prior intent", although the Third Circuit acknowledged that it is possible to find scienter even without actual prior knowledge if the party in question acts recklessly with regard what is being broadcast. For instance, according to the Third Circuit, a broadcaster's failure to use available preventative technology, such as a delay for live programming, might be reckless and the broadcaster might have sufficient scienter to be held liable for anything contained in the live broadcast. With respect to CBS, the Third Circuit found that the evidence was insufficient for the court to make a determination.
The Third Circuit vacated the FCC's order imposing the forfeiture on CBS and sent the case back to the FCC for further consideration. However, as the Supreme Court agreed to hear the FCC's appeal on the substantially similar "Golden Globes" case from the Second Circuit, it seems likely that the FCC would want to consolidate that case with the Third Circuit's decision and seek review of both at the same time.
Comedian George Carlin has passed away, but he will live on in many ways. For broadcasters, Carlin's most noteworthy legacy is the FCC's indecency policy in all its tortured, blurred inconsistency. It was Carlin, after all, who created the notion that there might be seven words that you couldn't say on the public airwaves. The Commission had certainly never said anything close to that before Carlin created and recorded his piece, or before WBAI broadcast it. But by crafting a comedic monologue based on the fictional premise that there did exist some absolute FCC ban against the broadcast of certain words, Carlin managed to draw the FCC into embracing his notion. So Carlin's art became the FCC's reality.
The irony, of course, is that Carlin's monologue itself illustrates the futility of any broadbrush governmental proscription on language. As the routine hilariously - and irrefutably - demonstrates, words are just words, and they mean no more and no less than what the user intends them to mean. It is a fool's errand to try to limit the ability of people to communicate their own ideas through words of their own choosing. And it is fundamentally antithetical to the premise underlying the First Amendment and the ultimate strength of our democratic process.
The Commission has fumbled and stumbled in trying to develop some coherent indecency policy over the last 35 years or so, ever since Carlin fantasized that there might be some such policy and then proceeded to skewer that imagined policy in his monologue. While the Supreme Court tried to do the FCC a favor in 1978 by interpreting the Commission's initial decision narrowly, the Commission has, over the years, largely ignored that narrowing. The result is, among other things, the current Golden Globes policy that flatly criminalizes the broadcast utterance of "fuck" or "shit" - unless, of course, those words occur in Saving Private Ryan.
Carlin got it right in his monologue. Not that there was an FCC policy, or that there should be an FCC policy, but rather that such a policy would be pointless and meaningless and contrary to our ability to communicate with one another. While Carlin probably did not approve of the path the FCC has taken in response to his monologue, Carlin must certainly have appreciated the rich irony of that path and the effectiveness with which it underscored his essential point.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the FCC's defense of its "Omnibus" Indecency order, which involved the FCC's decision to punish "fleeting" expletives. The case, FCC v. Fox Television Stations, marks the first real Supreme Court review of the FCC's indecency rules since the famous FCC v. Pacifica case considered George Carlin's "seven dirty words." The outcome of the case could entirely overturn the FCC's authority to regulate indecency content or further entrench that authority.
At issue in the case is the FCC's decision in its Omnibus Indecency order to sanction Fox Television Stations for "fleeting" or "isolated" uses of indecent words, reversing decades of prior policy on "fleeting expletives". The Supreme Court's decision to hear the case is somewhat surprising, given the fact that the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (which issued the decision under appeal) specifically limited the basis of its decision to a point of administrative procedure, rather than direct First Amendment grounds. Moreover, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit is still considering the appeal of the Super Bowl/Janet Jackson case. Traditionally, the Supreme Court prefers cases that involve issues of
Constitutional significance that different appeals courts have decided in different ways. In appealing the case to the Supreme Court, however, the FCC argued, among other things, that the Second Circuit's decision was really an attack on the entire basis of the FCC's indecency regulation and, by extension, an attack on the Supreme Court's decision in FCC v. Pacifica. If the Supreme Court follows that argument, we could see a reconsideration of FCC's authority to regulate indecent broadcast content. On the other hand, the Court may simply weigh in on the procedural point, setting up another round of reconsiderations and appeals that could take years to resolve.
Legal pundits will spend the next few months debating on the Supreme Court's motives for taking the case and predicting the ultimate outcome. For now, we will limit ourselves to noting that the FCC has a backlog of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of indecency cases that have been held in limbo while the FCC has tried to get more guidance from the courts and Congress. While today's announcement is a significant event, given that the Supreme Court won't actually hear arguments until fall of this year, those cases may expect to stay in limbo until at least 2009.
You can't hurry love, and you apparently can't hurry the Supreme Court, either. Despite considerable speculation that the Supremes might announce on Monday, March 3, whether it had decided to hear the FCC's appeal in the Fox Television indecency case, the Court gave no indication one way or the other on that score in the list of orders it released. According to the Court's published schedule, the next date on which it will be in session - and, therefore, likely to release any decisions of any kind - will be Monday, March 17.
Unlike the lower Federal courts, the Supremes are under no obligation to hear appeals in any particular case (other than a very small universe of "original jurisdiction" cases, such as disputes between two states). So when the FCC loses in a Federal court of appeals, as it did in the Fox Television case in the Second Circuit last June, it must ask the Supremes to please agree to review the lower court's ruling. The Supremes, in turn, will agree to do so only if at least four justices vote to do so. The odds against getting your foot in the door are long: generally, 95%-99% of petitions for Supreme Court review are denied each year.
The FCC's petition and the TV networks' oppositions were distributed to the Justices for consideration at a February 29 "conference". A conference is a meeting attended by only the Justices during which such petitions are considered and voted on. Because the Fox Television case was presumably to be discussed and voted on on February 29, the smart money figured that on March 3 (i.e., the next time it was "in session") the Court would announce whether it would hear the case. But the list of orders issued by the Court on March 3 contained no reference to the Fox Television case.
So revise your calendars for March 17, and check back here then to come see about it.
The FCC released a new indecency decision on Friday evening, reaching back to a 2003 episode of NYPD Blue to find 52 ABC affiliates "apparently liable" for over $1.4 million in fines. Before Friday, the FCC had not released a new indecency decision in over a year, apparently waiting for the courts or Congress to clarify its authority on indecent material. Indeed, after the Second Circuit overturned the FCC's "Omnibus Indecency Order, FCC Chairman Martin complained that the Second Circuit had all but tied the FCC's hands in enforcing indecency cases. Unfortunately for ABC and its affiliates, however, the material in the Omnibus Indecency Order involved naughty words, while the episode of NYPD in question involved naughty body parts. The NYPD Blue episode at issue - the unfortunately-titled episode "Nude Awakening" - included a scene in which a woman disrobes before a shower, exposing her naked buttocks and the side of one breast.
The FCC's "Notice of Apparent Liability" (or "NAL" in FCC-slang) offers several insights for broadcasters, the first being that the FCC has not ceased its enforcement of its indecency rules. While there may be some uncertainty over what words may be prohibited and when, the FCC is decidedly less conflicted over televised nudity. Second, the "safe harbor" time period remains a critical factor in indecency decisions. The FCC's rules prohibit indecent material between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 pm. ABC stations in the Eastern and Pacific Time zones aired the episode after 10:00 pm and, thus, were beyond the rule's reach. However, ABC stations in the Central and Mountain Time zones, which aired exactly the same material in sync with the east coast (and therefore before 10:00 pm local time), got hit with proposed forfeitures of $27,500 per station. Third, complaints count. The FCC did not propose to fine all of ABC affiliates in the Central and Mountain time zones (even though they all presumably aired the same program at the same time), just those about which the FCC received complaints. Finally, while the $1.4 million proposed forfeiture ($27,500 times 52 stations) may seem high, it could have been worse. The FCC proposed the highest fine it could, but was limited by the maximum fines in effect at the time the program aired. If FCC took the same approach to a program airing in 2008, the total bill would be closer to $17 million (the current maximum is $325,000 per station). ABC and its affiliates have until February 11, 2008, to pay the fine or file a response to the NAL. Press reports indicate that ABC intends to fight. Keep watching this space for updates as they happen.
Holden Caulfield's concern about the fact that his younger sister, Phoebe, and her friends might be exposed to the word "fuck" echoes strongly in the FCC's indecency policy.
"But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody'd written "Fuck you" on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, then finally some dirty kid would tell them - all cockeyed, naturally - what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days."
The FCC's phobic preoccupation with the word "fuck" (and its variants) has been politely but resoundingly rebuffed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Court was not persuaded by the FCC's claim that children should be protected from the "first blow", i.e., some unexpected exposure to the word "fuck" coming in on the radio or TV. As the Court observed, the FCC's own implementation of its policy allowed for the use of "fuck" (and its variants) in a number of instances, all of them seemingly contrary to the "first blow" concern. The Court also noted that, contrary to the FCC's insistence, the "F-word" can be, and often is, used in contexts which no reasonable person could interpret as referring to sexual or excretory organs or activities. Perhaps most damning, the Court found that the FCC has offered no evidence that exposure to a "fleeting expletive" is harmful at all.
And the Court was also critical of the Commission's view that broadcasting is in some way a unique medium which has a unique impact on the public. The Court commented that today "children likely hear this language far more often from other sources" than they did in the 1970s, when the FCC first waded into the regulation of indecency. Even the dissenting judge acknowledged that the words on the FCC's verboten list "are much more common in daily discourse today than they were thirty years ago."
"I saw another "Fuck you" on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand. . . . It wouldn't come off. It's hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the "Fuck you" signs in the world. It's impossible. . . . You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "Fuck you" right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say "Holden Caulfield" on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say "Fuck you." I'm positive, in fact."
Holden Caulfield, a confused and troubled teen-ager created in 1945 by J.D. Salinger, grasped the utter futility of trying to eradicate every vestige of societal unpleasantness. Amazingly, six decades later the FCC has not yet attained that level of consciousness. It still views itself as the catcher in the rye, attempting to "catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff", as Holden would say. The Court's decision will, ideally, force the Commission to a more realistic and practical self-assessment.
In a long-awaited decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has finally dropped the hammer on the Commission's indecency policy. In an opinion issued on June 4, 2007, a three-judge panel (with one dissent) has held that the "fleeting expletive" policy invoked by the Commission in 2004 and then again in the 2006 "Omnibus" indecency decision is arbitrary and capricious. In the Court's view, the FCC's asserted justifications for the "fleeting expletive" policy were less than persuasive.
The "fleeting expletive" policy - as first announced in 2004 and then reaffirmed in 2006 - provided that any broadcast of the words "fuck" or "shit", in almost any context, would be deemed indecent. Historically, the Commission had been far more restrained, acknowledging that the occasional slip-up resulting in the broadcast of an isolated expletive should not warrant censure. But in the wake of the public uproar over the Janet Jackson/Super Bowl incident, the Commission suddenly reversed course and took an exceedingly hard line on indecency generally, and the use of those two words in particular.
The Court's decision is at first blush relatively narrow, finding only that the "fleeting expletive" policy is arbitrary and capricious and thus inconsistent with the Administrative Procedure Act. But in a surprising six-page portion of the opinion, the Court offered its very strong suggestion that the policy would not survive First Amendment analysis. (As a matter of practice, courts generally decline to delve into weighty constitutional issues if a case can be resolved on less radical grounds.)
The majority also indicates that the FCC's "profanity" policy - which first popped up in 2004 - essentially overlaps the indecency policy - which indicates that the profanity policy cannot survive, either.
The case is remanded to the Commission for further action consistent with the Court's decision - but the Court seems clearly to signal that if the Commission tries to shore up its policies on remand (as opposed to running up the white flag and abandoning them), the Court anticipates yet another appeal, the result of which would not be favorable to the Commission.
We are, of course, still awaiting further developments in the Janet Jackson case out of the Third Circuit, but oral argument there is not likely to happen for at least another couple of months.