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Regulation of Broadcast Indecency: Background and Legal Analysis

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Publication Date: September 2008

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL32222

Topic: Media, telecommunications, and information (Broadcasting)


Two prominent television events placed increased attention on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the broadcast indecency statute that it enforces. The airing of an expletive by Bono during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards, as well as the "wardrobe malfunction" that occurred during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, gave broadcast indecency prominence in the 108th and 109th Congresses, and resulted in the enactment of P.L.109-235 (2006), which increased the penalties for broadcast indecency by tenfold.

Federal law makes it a crime to utter "any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication" (18 U.S.C. § 1464). Violators of this statute are subject to fines and imprisonment of up to two years, and the FCC may enforce this provision by forfeiture or revocation of a broadcaster's license. The FCC has found that, for material to be "indecent," it "must describe or depict sexual or excretory organs or activities," and "must be patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium." The federal government's authority to regulate material that is "indecent" but not obscene was upheld by the Supreme Court in Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, which found that prohibiting such material during certain times of the day does not violate the First Amendment.

In 1992, Congress enacted P.L. 102-356 (47 U.S.C. § 303 note), section 16(a) of which, as interpreted by the courts, requires the FCC to prohibit "indecent" material on broadcast radio and broadcast television from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Under P.L. 109-235, "indecent" broadcasts are now subject to a fine of up to "$325,000 for each violation or each day of continuing violation, except that the amount assessed for any continuing violation shall not exceed a total of $3,000,000 for any single act or failure to act." Fines may be levied against broadcast stations, but not against broadcast networks. The FCC appears to have the statutory authority to fine performers as well (up to $32,500 per incident), but has taken the position that "[c]ompliance with federal broadcast decency restrictions is the responsibility of the station that chooses to air the programming, not the performers."

The federal restriction on "indecent" material applies only to broadcast media, and this stems from the fact that there are a limited number of broadcast frequencies available and that the Supreme Court, therefore, allows the government to regulate broadcast media more than other media. This report discusses the legal evolution of the FCC's indecency regulations, and provides an overview of how the current regulations have been applied. The final section of the report considers whether prohibiting the broadcast of "indecent" words regardless of context would violate the First Amendment. This question arises because the Supreme Court in Pacifica left open the question whether broadcasting an occasional expletive, as in the Bono case, would justify a sanction.