I Hear The Sound Of Laughter From A Soul Stuck On The Roof

Reason for the blog title here

Brian Stelter at NYT:

A United States appeals court tossed out the indecency policy of the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday, calling it a violation of the First Amendment.

An appeals panel said the F.C.C. policy was “unconstitutionally vague, creating a chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here.”

The ruling was immediately characterized as a victory for big broadcasters like ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, which have been fighting the indecency policy for years.

Tuesday’s ruling vacates a 2004 decision by the Bush administration F.C.C. to step up enforcement of the indecency policy on the broadcast airwaves. Earlier that year, the singer Janet Jackson’s breast was bared during the Super Bowl halftime show on CBS, reigniting a decades-old debate about broadcast standards.

But Tuesday’s ruling deals more specifically with the F.C.C. policy toward so-called fleeting expletives. After several curse words were uttered during awards shows in 2002 and 2003, the F.C.C. concluded that a single use of an expletive “could be actionably indecent,” triggering fines against broadcasters.

Also in 2004, Congress said that the F.C.C. could fine stations up to $325,000 for each instance of indecent speech, substantially raising the penalties for a profanity that was not bleeped.

On Tuesday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York found that the policy toward fleeting expletives effectively chills speech in part “because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the F.C.C. will find offensive.”

Willa Paskin at New York Magazine:

The court’s decision will not only be a boon to awards shows, which will now be less fearful of the late-bleeped curse word, but also scripted series like Family Guy, which can now make horse-semen jokes with no fear of retribution.

Declan McCullagh at cnet:

Call it the revenge of George Carlin.

The legendary Grammy-winning comedian, who died in 2008, was slapped down by the Federal Communications Commission in the 1970s for his “Seven Dirty Words” monologue. The U.S. Supreme Court gravely concluded that the 12-minute monologue was illegal to broadcast.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the year 2010. The Internet grew even faster than the federal deficit, wireless devices sprouted like Obama stickers on Priuses, and American consumers were forced to pay for V-chips in their televisions, whether or not they wanted any.

Which is why a federal appeals court on Tuesday said that technological advances have ripped away the underpinnings of the FCC’s “indecency” regulations. Forget Nipplegate: FCC attorneys have insisted for decades that they have the constitutional authority to punish radio and TV broadcasters who dare to transmit even a few syllables from Carlin’s list of naughty words.

Jacob Sullum at Reason:

The decision cites evidence that the FCC’s arbitrary application of its vague, subjective standards has deterred broadcasters from airing constitutionally protected material, including political debates, live news feeds, novel readings, and award-winning shows dealing with sexual themes. “By prohibiting all ‘patently offensive’ references to sex, sexual organs, and excretion without giving adequate guidance as to what ‘patently offensive’ means,” the court concludes, “the FCC effectively chills speech, because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the FCC will find offensive. To place any discussion of these vast topics at the broadcaster’s peril has the effect of promoting wide self-censorship of valuable material which should be completely protected under the First Amendment.”

Although the court leaves open the possibility that the FCC could come up with a new indecency policy that would pass constitutional muster, it strongly suggests that the Supreme Court’s justification for allowing the regulation of content on broadcast TV and radio, set forth in the 1978 case FCC v. Pacifica, is no longer valid. Given the enormous changes in the media environment since then, the 2nd Circuit notes, broadcasting is no longer “uniquely pervasive” or uniquely accessible to children: It is but one of many media options, and parents can exercise the same sort of control over their children’s viewing regardless of whether programming arrives over the air, by cable, by phone line, or by satellite. In light of these realities, it is long past time (as Jesse and I have argued) to overturn Pacifica, a step the 2nd Circuit leaves to the Supreme Court.

Mike Masnick at TechDirt:

The decision is quite interesting, in that it notes that one of the reasons why the FCC was allowed to fine indecency on TV and radio was the “pervasiveness” of those media, but that in today’s internet-connected world, it makes less and less sense, since people who don’t hear cursing on TV will almost certainly hear it online or elsewhere. On top of that, it notes that technology has given new power to parents to block access to “mature” content, such that the FCC might not have to watch over everything so carefully anymore.

Furthermore, it focuses on the “vagueness doctrine,” in noting that if a rule against certain types of speech is too vague, it can create a real chilling effect on speech, as people don’t know where the boundaries are located. And here’s where it gets fun. The decision explores how the FCC decided that some words were indecent and others weren’t without explaining why:

The first problem arises in the FCC’s determination as to which words or expressions are patently offensive. For instance, while the FCC concluded that “bullshit” in a “NYPD Blue” episode was patently offensive, it concluded that “dick” and “dickhead” were not…. Other expletives such as “pissed off,” “up yours,” “kiss my ass,” and “wiping his ass” were also not found to be patently offensive. … The Commission argues that its three-factor “patently offensive” test gives broadcasters fair notice of what it will find indecent. However, in each of these cases, the Commission’s reasoning consisted of repetition of one or more of the factors without any discussion of how it applied them. Thus, the word “bullshit” is indecent because it is “vulgar, graphic and explicit” while the words “dickhead” was not indecent because it was “not sufficiently vulgar, explicit, or graphic.” This hardly gives broadcasters notice of how the Commission will apply the factors in the future.

The English language is rife with creative ways of depicting sexual or excretory organs or activities, and even if the FCC were able to provide a complete list of all such expressions, new offensive and indecent words are invented every day.

The court also notes that back when the FCC’s enforcement focused on George Carlin’s famous “seven dirty words,” no indecency actions were brought, because everyone knew what was and was not allowed — even if other terms were used instead:

This strategy had its limitations — it meant that some indecent speech that did not employ these seven words slipped through the cracks. However, it had the advantage of providing broadcasters with a clear list of words that were prohibited. Not surprisingly, in the nine years between Pacifica and the FCC’s abandonment of this policy, not a single enforcement action was brought. This could be because we lived in a simpler time before such foul language was common. Or, it could be that the FCC’s policy was sufficiently clear that broadcasters knew what was prohibited.

The court doesn’t buy the FCC’s argument that because broadcasters used other words instead, it had to make it’s policy more vague, and notes that this shows “a certain futility” in the FCC’s quixotic campaign against indecency. And then it adds that if things are always changing, it’s not fair for broadcasters:

The observation that people will always find a way to subvert censorship laws may expose a certain futility in the FCC’s crusade against indecent speech, but it does not provide a justification for implementing a vague, indiscernible standard. If the FCC cannot anticipate what will be considered indecent under its policy, then it can hardly expect broadcasters to do so. And while the FCC characterizes all broadcasters as consciously trying to push the envelope on what is permitted, much like a petulant teenager angling for a later curfew, the Networks have expressed a good faith desire to comply with the FCC’s indecency regime. They simply want to know with some degree of certainty what the policy is so that they can comply with it. The First Amendment requires nothing less.

The decision also notes that the FCC seems to randomly enforce its own rules:

Even the risk of such subjective, content-based decision-making raises grave concerns under the First Amendment. Take, for example, the disparate treatment of “Saving Private Ryan” and the documentary, “The Blues.” The FCC decided that the words “fuck” and “shit” were integral to the “realism and immediacy of the film experience for viewers” in “Saving Private Ryan,” but not in “The Blues.” …. We query how fleeting expletives could be more essential to the “realism” of a fictional movie than to the “realism” of interviews with real people about real life events, and 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. But even if there were a perfectly benign way of explaining these particular outcomes, nothing would prevent the FCC from applying its indecency policy in a discriminatory manner in the future.

Finally, the court notes that these chilling effects are very, very real and can already be seen:

For instance, several CBS affiliates declined to air the Peabody Award-winning “9/11” documentary, which contains real audio footage — including occasional expletives — of firefighters in the World Trade Center on September 11th. Although the documentary had previously aired twice without complaint, following the Golden Globes Order affiliates could no longer be sure whether the expletives contained in the documentary could be found indecent.

The court says it’s possible the FCC could create a policy that is acceptable under the First Amendment, but this one does not qualify. I’m sure this will be appealed to the Supreme Court as well, but in the meantime, it’s a pretty big smackdown for the FCC’s attempt to fine indecency.

Doug Mataconis:

On the whole this strikes me as the correct decision. Leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether the FCC should even have the power to regulate decency on broadcast and cable television, a matter on which I happen to have some rather strong opinions in the negative, it seems wholly unfair to punish broadcasters for something said on a live broadcast by someone not under their control. It is, in fact, the verbal equivalent of the whole Janet Jackson Super Bowl mess, for which Viacom paid out more than $ 3.5 million in absurdly administered “indecency” fines.

Even if you believe that broadcasters should be held to “decency” standards, holding them responsible for things they have no control over is both unfair and, as the Court found today, a violation of the First Amendment.

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