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.