Federal Communications Commission indecency rules are back in the news, after the Liberman Broadcasting agreed to pay $110,000 to settle an investigation into a now-cancelled Spanish-language program, which drew complaints over the behavior of performers on the show.
For broadcast newsrooms, the big question over indecency regulation centers on "fleeting expletives," and whether stations should be fined when unexpected profanity is broadcast during breaking news coverage.
When the FCC asked for public comment on its indecency rules, National Public Radio suggested creating a more formal "safe harbor" rule for news-talk and public affairs programming. The Commission has generally ignored complaints about fleeting expletives, but NPR says formalizing that policy, or at least assuring newsrooms that fines will not be issued in such circumstances is needed. In a letter to the Commission, WBUR-FM General Manager Charles Kravetz said in situations like the Boston Marathon bombings, it would be "virtually impossible" to report the story without the possibility of profanity reaching the airwaves.
RTDNA was among the organizations that filed comments on the issue, saying in part:
The FCC’s current indecency policies—the contours of which are presently unknown and unknowable to broadcasters, journalists, and program producers alike—are unconstitutionally vague and create an impermissible chilling effect on protected speech. The current policies, which represent an about-face from the restrained approach that the FCC previously applied, also far exceed the bounds of permissible regulation under the Supreme Court’s decision in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. Accordingly, the Commission’s continued enforcement of these policies violates the fundamental First Amendment precept, incorporated by Congress into the Communications Act, that the government must tread lightly when venturing to regulate broadcast content. Due respect for First Amendment principles also requires the FCC to defer to licensees’ reasonable good-faith judgments with respect to the types of programming that constitute news or public affairs, as well as the occasions on which it is appropriate to broadcast expletives and/or nudity in order to best present newsworthy program content to viewers and listeners. As it did some thirty-five years ago, RTDNA urges the Commission to exempt news and public affairs programming from the indecency regulation.
RTDNA will continue its efforts to press the FCC to reform its regulation and enforcement of broadcast indecency rules and we'll keep you up to date on developments.