FCC Seeks Public Input on Whether to Ban ‘Fleeting Expletives’ and ‘Momentary Nudity’

Washington, D.C. — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is asking for public input on whether it should ban the use of a single swear word or momentary frontal nudity in broadcast media.

As previously reported, last June, the Supreme Court overturned fines that the government agency had imposed regarding three broadcasts on the Fox and ABC Networks, which the FCC had found to be in violation of its regulations. During the Golden Globe Awards in 2002 and 2003, singer Cher blurted out profanity and actress Nicole Richie used two expletives on stage, which were not silenced by the networks. Additionally, during an episode of NYPD Blue, a scene showed a woman’s bare buttocks for seven seconds.

Current FCC regulations prohibit “any obscene, indecent or profane language” and large fines are imposed for violations of the law.

However, because the programs did not repeatedly use profanity or show indecency for a prolonged period, and the rules did not specifically state that even a few seconds of improper material constituted an infraction, the Supreme Court ruled that that the regulations did not provide sufficient warning to the networks. It stated that on other instances, the FCC had not levied fines against others for usage of a single profane word, and that its seemingly sudden and new policy seemed to have reflected a “changed interpretation” of the law that was much stricter.

The ruling did not state that the FCC was wrong in now severely punishing fleeting expletives or brief scenes of nudity, but rather outlined that the government should adjust its policy to provide clear warning in light of the ruling if it wishes to bar such acts in the media.

Therefore, the FCC is now seeking public input on whether it should keep the status quo with the current wording of its broadcast regulation, or if it should adjust the language to ensure that broadcasters are barred from using even a single instance of profanity or a few seconds of nudity. It stated that because of the Supreme Court ruling, the FCC chairman directed the agency to pursue only “egregious” cases for the time being, thus reducing its backlog of complaints by 70%.

“We now seek comment on whether the full Commission should make changes to its current broadcast indecency policies or maintain them as they are,” a public notice released by the FCC states. “For example, should the Commission treat isolated expletives in a manner consistent with our decision in Pacifica Foundation, Inc., [which stated,] ‘If a complaint focuses solely on the use of expletives, we believe that . . . deliberate and repetitive use in a patently offensive manner is a requisite to a finding of indecency.’”?

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“Should the Commission instead maintain the approach to isolated expletives set forth in its decision in Complaints Against Various  Broadcast Licensees Regarding Their Airing of the ‘Golden Globe Awards’ Program, [which regarded a single fleeting expletive]?” it continued. “As another example, should the Commission treat isolated (non-sexual) nudity the same as or differently than isolated expletives?”

“Commenters are invited to address these issues as well as any other aspect of the Commission’s substantive indecency policies,” the FCC adds.

The FCC outlined the methods for commenting on proceeding number 13-86 in its official public notice, which includes postal mail and electronic submissions through its website.  The commenting period will be open until June 1st.


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