Much to the chagrin of pro-family and television watchdog groups, the Federal Communications Commission is considering easing up on the decency standards that have governed broadcast television for years. The Hill reported April 1 that the FCC has issued a request for public comment on a proposal that would change the focus of complaint investigations to only “egregious” instances of broadcast indecency — which include profanity and nudity. The change would signal a shift away from the FCC's past practice of penalizing even “fleeting expletives” and indecency.
The FCC is seeking public input for how it should address profanity and brief on-screen displays of nudity, The Hill explained. The standards only apply to broadcast television and radio — not to cable and satellite TV or Internet content.
The FCC's current guidelines for broadcast stations state: “It is a violation of federal law to air obscene programming at any time. It is also a violation of federal law to air indecent programming or profane language during certain hours.”
During his four-year tenure, which concludes in the coming weeks, current FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was notorious for issuing no fines for broadcast indecency, although watchdog groups have noted a dramatic uptick in instances of both profanity and unacceptable nudity. Genachowski justified the lack of enforcement by pointing to a bevy of lawsuits charging that the FCC's stated standards represent an unconstitutional attack on free-speech guarantees.
According to the FCC, much of its reticence has come in response to the Supreme Court's decision in FCC v. Fox Television, a high-profile case in which the High Court ruled 8-0 that the FCC's decency standards were “vague” and that the federal bureaucracy had failed to give the network “fair notice” in warning that “fleeting” nudity or profanity violated the FCC's standards.
While the ruling did not address First Amendment issues or disrupt the FCC's enforcement powers, it has prompted the agency to reconsider its decency standards going forward.
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