FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Part IV: The FCC's new standards in action.

This is part of a series of posts discussing the background of the Supreme Court's "fleeting expletives" case from last week, FCC v. Fox Television Stations. Click here to see the whole string of posts, including this one, on a single page, in chronological order. (As usual, click here to watch George Carlin's monologue if you haven't done so already!)

In the last post, I discussed the FCC's 2004 rule on indecency, which altered its previous policy, mainly on the word "fuck." For something to be indecent, it has to, first, refer to sexual or excretory activities. And, second, it has to be patently offensive, in context, according to contemporary community standards. This second prong (heh-heh) involves analyzing (1) the explicitness or graphic nature of the description of sexual or excretory activities, (2) whether the material dwells on or repeats the description of these activities at length, and (3) whether it appears to pander or titillate or was presented for its shock value.

On the first prong, the FCC found that "fuck," in any form, always referred to sexual activities. And on the second prong, the FCC applied its three criteria and determined that its use on a nationally televised awards show was indeed patently offensive. (As an alternative ground, the FCC held that "fuck" was profane, another prohibited category.) Therefore, the material was "indecent," and thus banned by the statute, even if it was only mentioned once and accidentally. (The previous policy had announced that isolated occurrences were of no regulatory concern.) Nonetheless, the FCC declined to assess a fine, because it was announcing a change of policy and thought the regulated community ought to have more notice before being fined — among other reasons, lest there be a chilling effect on speech.

That was the 2004 policy. About two years later, in March 2006, to give greater guidance to the regulated community, the FCC released a lengthy document analyzing dozens of particular cases, representing thousands of complaints. The document was divided into three parts: (1) cases where it found indecency or profanity and proposed monetary fines against the licensees, (2) cases where it found indecency or profanity but didn't propose fines, and (3) cases where it didn't find indecency or profanity. Here are some examples — I'll focus on the ones involving speech rather than visual depictions of sex.