Court ruling clears FCC to revisit old indecency complaints

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision to keep the Federal Communications Commission’s indecency rules in place, more than 1.4 million complaints that have been sitting in limbo at the regulatory agency will now have to be reviewed for potential violations and fines.

In a statement Thursday, FCC Commissioner Robert Robert M. McDowell said, “It is now time for the FCC to get back to work so that we can process the backlog of pending indecency complaints — which currently stands at just under 1.5 million involving about 9,700 TV broadcasts.”

The FCC had not acted on the complaints because it was awaiting the high court’s ruling.

Thursday’s decision did not declare that the FCC’s indecency rules and the agency’s enforcement of them were vague and unconstitutional, as the broadcast networks had hoped. Instead, the decision, concerning two specific cases involving Fox and ABC, was very narrow in scope, and is not likely to have any broader effect.


Specifically, the Supreme Court said a fine the FCC levied against ABC had to be nullified because the agency had not given the network “fair warning” of an a change in its enforcement of indecency rules. That fine was in relation to some nudity in a 2003 episode of “NYPD Blue.”

Fox, meanwhile, though it was never fined by the FCC, was in a legal tussle over so-called “fleeting expletives” by Cher and Nicole Richie in live broadcasts in 2002 and 2003. The FCC said it could have fined Fox, which led to the network’s challenge of its enforcement of fleeting expletives.

The more aggressive enforcement came about when the FCC was trying to police the airwaves in the wake of Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction,” in which part of her breast was exposed during a halftime performance at the Super Bowl.

Many of the complaints await action at the FCC have to do with the Fox animated comedy “Family Guy.” A 2009 episode of the show, which included a plot about horse semen, generated more than 200,000 complaints. Typically, when a show has received that many complaints it is a sign that a special interest group is encouraging people to send letters to the FCC. The Parents Television Council, an activist group that often bemoans the quality of broadcast content, has made “Family Guy” one of its targets over the years.


Some of the complaints date back as far as 2003. The FCC may have to forgo reviewing them either because of statute of limitation issues or because of Thursday’s court decision.


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