With the large expense of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indecency fines, guidelines should be set that clearly defines the content that can be broadcast because freedom of speech may be infringed upon otherwise.
Many stations may limit the material that they broadcast out of fear of penalties.
Even more troublesome is that live on-air accidental expletives and indecency is punished as if it were planned.
Realizing this, a federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s “fleeting expletive” policy toward broadcast media indecency last week because it lacked specific guidelines outlying what’s inappropriate, which may also open the way to much-needed re-examination of decency laws.
After Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl and other celebrity obscenities, the FCC instituted stricter decency standards and began to crack down on quick, fleeting expletives, which were previously tolerated in isolated incidents, according to the New York Times.
Under FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, indecency violations have increased tenfold since 2004, reaching up to $325,000 per incident, according to the Times.
“By prohibiting all ‘patently offensive’ references to sex, sexual organs and excretion without giving adequate guidance as to what ‘patently offensive’ means, the FCC effectively chills speech because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the FCC will find offensive,” the court wrote in its decision.
Beyond requiring the necessary outlines, the decision also protects companies from accidents and unintended vulgarity that could result in an expensive fine.
“We have always felt that the government’s position on fleeting expletives was unconstitutional,” Fox Broadcasting, one of the companies that brought the suit, said in a statement.
“While we will continue to strive to eliminate expletives from live broadcasts, the inherent challenges broadcasters face with live television, coupled with the human element required for monitoring, must allow for the unfortunate isolated instances where inappropriate language slips through.”
Now is the time to not only revisit this particular aspect of FCC regulation regarding media broadcast but also question the entire practice itself.
Parents can censor many programs with greater ease than ever, via certain televisions and cable boxes. Anytime censorship occurs, it will always raise questions about its effect on the First Amendment’s freedom of speech rights.
Not only impacting stations by forcing self-censorship, the vague nature of the FCC decency standards have also caused many news organizations to cancel live broadcasts out of fear of unforeseen vulgarity and subsequent fines.
The court ruled correctly for free speech, though further changes should be made that attempt to strike a more careful balance between First Amendment values and public decency,