Washington, D.C. – Enforcement of Federal Communications Commission policy regulating indecent programming on the public airwaves severely restrains the ability of broadcast journalists to report on matters of public interest and concern, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although there is a news exemption for brief, unplanned expletives or indecent material that makes it on the air, the Reporters Committee argues that not only is the determination of what is indecent highly subjective, so is the determination of what is a news program. In addition, “Indecency fines so large they potentially force broadcasters out of business raise serious constitutional concerns about the permissibility of the penalties.”
Only a clear standard, or “bright-line rule,” applied to the regulation of fleeting expletives in any media format can protect news reporting on matters of public interest and concern, the brief argued.
A “system of self-regulation by the broadcast industry is a feasible alternative,” it noted, adding, that “broadcasters are fully capable or policing themselves in a manner that serves the FCC’s legitimate interest in protecting children while avoiding the constitutional threats that arise from government regulation of content.”
“The First Amendment was adopted to protect the very kind of news reporting that is threatened by these subjective FCC standards and astonishing, disproportionate fines,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “We’ve seen lower courts admonish FCC indecency rulings and fines against news broadcasters as arbitrary and capricious. Now the Supreme Court has the opportunity to ensure that all news media are given the right to police their own content consistent with their internal standards and public accountability.”
The Reporters Committee was joined in its brief in Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations and Federal Communications Commission v. ABC Inc. by the E.W. Scripps Co. The brief is available on the Reporters Committee website.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.