The Freakin' FCC

The increasingly incomprehensible ban on broadcast indecency


My daughters, who range in age from 5 to 18, watch TV programs and movies on DVDs, on smart phones, streaming from Netflix through our Wii, on video websites, on our DVR, and on demand from AT&T U-verse. They do not know or care what "broadcast television" is, and they certainly do not perceive a categorical distinction between "over-the-air" channels and the rest.

But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does, imposing a form of censorship on broadcast TV that would be clearly unconstitutional in any other context—for the children, of course. A case the Supreme Court heard in January gives it an opportunity to renounce this obsolete doctrine once and for all.

Officially, the FCC punishes TV and radio stations for airing programs that "describe or depict sexual or excretory organs or activities" in ways that are "patently offensive." But it is impossible to figure out what that means based on the FCC's highly subjective judgments.

The commission has decreed, for instance, that fuck is indecent when uttered by celebrities during live award shows—whether exuberantly (Bono), angrily (Cher), or jokingly (Nicole Richie)—and by blues musicians in a PBS documentary, but not by fictional soldiers in Saving Private Ryan, where the cursing was, in the FCC's view, artistically justified. Likewise, fleeting partial nudity on NYPD Blue was indecent, while full frontal nudity in Schindler's List was not. Call it the Spielberg Rule.

The FCC insists on no bullshit in a cop show but may allow it in "a bona fide news interview," although "there is no outright news exemption." The commission can be surprisingly tolerant of a dickhead or an ass, even when he is "pissed off." As the America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) observes, such judgments are "simply a matter of taste, and the commissioners' efforts to rationalize their taste merely emphasize the arbitrary nature of the enterprise."

Since guessing wrong about the FCC's taste can cost broadcasters millions of dollars in fines and jeopardize their licenses, they tend to err on the side of restraint, which means much worthy material either is expurgated or never airs. The ACLU cites many such examples, including 9/11 documentaries, war reporting, political debates, live news coverage, novel readings, and songs from Broadway shows.

In 2010 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit concluded that "the FCC effectively chills speech, because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the FCC will find offensive." The court ruled that the FCC's indecency ban "violates the First Amendment because it is unconstitutionally vague." 

Fox and the other TV networks challenging the ban are urging the Supreme Court not only to uphold the 2nd Circuit's decision but to reconsider the 1978 ruling that approved content-based regulation of broadcasting on the grounds that the medium was "uniquely pervasive" and "uniquely accessible to children." Now that nine out of 10 households are served by cable, satellite, or fiber-optic TV and children commonly watch video from nonbroadcast sources, it is hard to make that argument with a straight face. 

Three decades ago, the Court portrayed TV and radio signals as unwelcome visitors in people's homes. That description was never accurate, since receiving the programming carried by those signals required deliberate actions. It is even further from reality in today's entertainment market, which gives parents many tools for regulating what their kids watch. 

During oral argument in January, Justice Samuel Alito worried that repealing the indecency ban would trigger an explosion of televised nudity and profanity, even while conceding that the rule applies to an ever-shrinking part of the video market. In fact, there are more child-friendly entertainment options than ever before, no thanks to the government's ham-handed interference. From a consumer's perspective, the FCC's weirdly selective censorship is not just unnecessary but increasingly incomprehensible.

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum is a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Everyone knows that rabbit ears are especially sensitive to bare titties.

  2. The airwaves belong to the people!!!

    1. "The Native [Stupid] Americans didn't have any rights to the land [frequencies] ... Any white [house] person who brought the element of civilization [i.e., city-Statism] had the right to take over this continent [electronic spectrum]."

      ~Ayn Rand, US Military Academy at West Point, March 6, 1974

      Just like genocide taught them injuns 'bout city-statist property rights, the FCC taught 'Murkans 'bout frequency rights. See?

      1. I suppose it would be futile to point out that these same native americans often fought among each other for hunting land. Even in a land with no "state" enforcing property rights there will be violence over the conflicts of interest that arise over ownership of use of land.

        1. My neighbors are having a fight over the TV.

          So I can go take it from them.

          Fucking stupid Fibertard told me so.

          1. Property rights are a method of keeping people from fighting over land. In the absence of defined property rights, people did not freely gambol; they fought even more.

        2. I suppose it would be futile to point out that these same native americans often fought among each other for hunting land

          Yes, it would. Just like every other time it was brought up.

          1. My neighbors are having a fight over the TV.

            So I can go take it from them.

            Fucking stupid Fibertard told me so.

            1. You just proved my point. IMO the only legitimate state is one where all consent to live under some sort of constitutional charter. If one member infringes on another's right, the state ideally would step in to protect said person.

              In your infantile view, all would be peaches and cream if we abolished private ownership of land. Yet there is very little evidence in all of recorded human history of there being peace on earth with all gamboling about to hunt, herd, and gather. Even if you don't believe all in the Bible, there is a story about Abraham and Lot splitting their separate ways due to continuing fueds over water and grazing rights for flocks. Even if you got rid of herding you would have fights over the best ground for hunting.

              1. you're a statist

      2. Well fuck Ayn Rand. Why do you think that quoting Rand's uglier statements means anything?

        1. Why do you think that quoting Karl Marx's uglier statements means anything?

      3. Some American Indians owned black slaves. Funny how WI never mentions that.

  3. You know, you used to be able to see a good amount of T & A during football games that were blowouts - now, for all I know, the cheerleaders are integrated with males, its been so long since I have seen their supple bodies gyrating about. Did the FCC do that? Evil bast*rds!!!

    1. Depends on of you're watching college or NFL. NFL cheerleaders are all female, as far as I know. Also, you haven't watched a Dallas Cowboys game recently have you? Practically every commercial break they show the cheerleaders.


    1. That's OUR line!!!!! Why do you hate children and want them to die!!!!!!!!!

      1. Here's the situation. My CHILD is gravely ill...He'd like more than anything else to boss me around, and then whip me every time I displeased him. He values this opportunity way more than the medical costs necessary to save my CHILD'S life.

        Voluntary Slave Contracts
        by Walter Block, Austrian "economist"

        1. so libertarian

          1. said it, then it's the default position of libertarians. Try thinking, fuckhead.

            1. said it, then it's the default position of liberals. Try thinking, fuckhead.


      1. I find your ideas intriguing and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

        1. its all nekid womens w teh fatz

  5. We want Obama to win, because we've been licking our chops anticipating the day we have the power to shut down smut sites like Reason.com.

    1. Not yet, My loyal minions.

      But soon, I will unleash My FCC hounds on the entire broadcast spectrum, AND that pesky internet.

      1. Emperors rule empires

    2. Hey, lobster girl is not smut! She's art... beautiful, beautiful side-booby art.

    3. You leave the snorg tees girls alone.

      1. The thinks I miss in an AdBlock world.

        1. love it

          here's some real life adblock


          1. Yes, libertarians believe you should not control which html divs are displayed on your own screen attached to your own computer. Because controlling your own property is cITy-sTaTE aggression or something. Oh wait.

            Try thinking, fuckhead.

          2. So brave of them.

      2. Honestly, I never thought I'd say this, but I find the redhead with her jeans unsnapped to be completely unattractive in that photo. I don't know what the photog was going for but he delivered "least attractive photo of a pretty girl".

  6. Speaking of broadcast indecency, I am watching the Tebow press conference right now and he is INDECENTLY GAY.

    NTTAWWT. But come on, man, come out of the closet. Nobody's going to be mad. Just come out of the closet.

    1. Nobody's going to be mad.

      God would be mighty pissed.

    2. What about all his fundie fans who think he's a fellow "homosexuality is a sin against God and country" Christian?

    3. But he is so weird and wonderful!

    4. But won't GOD hate him? I mean, not the Frisbeetarian one maybe, but at least the Pentecostal one, right?

    5. Maybe God will smite him for it.

    6. No he is not. There is nothing gay about him. And I say this as a guy who couldn't stand him in college. But I have grown to like him for no other reason than to watch him torture all of the old know it all jocks on ESPN. Anyone that makes the talking heads on ESPN that miserable cannot be gay.

      1. He doesn't like pussy. He is either gay or a eunuch.

        1. Sure he does. Just because you are not a skirt chasing man whore doesn't mean you are gay.

          1. Yeah, I think it's pretty unlikely that he's gay. I've known guys with similar religious views who had little to no premarital sex.

            1. And not having "sex" still leaves a lot of latitude for doing other things.

              1. As any good catholic girl will readily prove for you.

                1. Catholic girls, do you know how they go?

            2. I agree, but damn, he acts gay. Possibly the most flamboyant dude in the NFL, as far as his speech and mannerisms during press conferences go.

              1. His speech patterns do sound a little gay, but mark my words, when finally loses his cherry, all of a suddden he'll sound like Barry White.

                Not to mention he'll probably stop hitting the gym and working so hard on improving his game. When you're not wasting time indoors fucking, it's amazing what you can accomplish. Of course, all of the above is assuming you believe he's still a virgin.

    7. and if anyone is obviously gay it is Mark Sanchez. I have read way too many stories about how "Charismatic" he is and how he if he goes out with his teammates he is the guy in control. We get it Mark, you are the pitcher.

  7. Given all of this information, will someone please tell TNT to stop showing Blazing Saddles with half of the dialog missing?

    1. TNT will show Two Girls One Cup before they show Blazing Saddles with the original dialogue.

      1. I can't think of a reason they would even put it on in the first place. What moron would watch that movie and think "yeah, this thing is just made for TV"?

      2. They will show a movie like Boyz in the Hood, where every character greats everyone around them by calling them "Nigger" totally uncut.

        1. RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRaaaaaaaaCCCCCCCCCiiiiiiiSSSSSSSttttttttt 11!1!!!11

      3. Tried to watch "The Watchmen" on TBS the other day (terrible). They cut out Rorschach's great scene in the chow line, referred back to it so that unless you had seen the movie before you were lost and then showed the one thug getting his arms cut off with the angle grinder at Rorschach's cell.

        I could understand them cutting the whole "burned with the deep frier oil" part due to violence until they had the scene with the guy getting his arms cut off.


        1. I think that if they are going to censor movies for TV, they should just bleep bad words and blur or put black boxes over naughty bits. I find that much less annoying than overdubbing or editing. Most of the shit that they dub over swear words is just silly.

          1. Meanwhile, they do the exact opposite these days when it comes to child nudity. They have them wear brightly colored swimsuits so as not to suggest anyone on scene during prod'n saw them naked.

        2. So what? You could say the same of the relationship of the movie to the comic book.

    2. Try watching Showgirls on broadcast TV: huge swaths of the film were cut. The naked ladies had these electronic black swimsuits hovering over their lithesome bodies.

      It was fascinating....

  8. That picture is indencent!

    1. His chin looks like balls!

  9. Now that nine out of 10 households are served by cable, satellite, or fiber-optic TV and children commonly watch video from nonbroadcast sources, it is hard to make that argument with a straight face.

    Are you kidding me, Jacob? Government apparatchiks always make the silliest of arguments with a straight face. Just ask Nancy Pelosi, whose face is forever straight, allowing her to make such arguments 24/7.

    1. Are you kidding me, Old Poodle? Fibertarian apparatchiks always make the silliest of arguments with a straight face.

      1. Full of shit.

          1. and fibs.

  10. I say we scrap the FCC, and form MPL (Ministry of Plot Relevance) - which would heavily regulate the random joke generator known as "Family Guy".

    1. Hate on Family Guy all you want, but that FCC song is a good one.

    2. +infinity

      Watch 1/3 of an episode, and you've seen them all.

      South Park pwned them that one time, and they were right.

    3. "form MPL (Ministry of Plot Relevance) - which would heavily regulate the random joke generator known as "Family Guy"."

      Already got one in my house; me or wife with remote off-switch.

    4. It's not a random joke generator, it's written by Manatees. Get your facts straight.

    5. I really like Family Guy (probably because I only occasionally see it), but one season would have been plenty.

  11. I would have them move to restrict the profanity on the cable channels. Nothing is gained by the use of cusswords. Mostly, this is just a sign of low intelligence on the speakers part or the writers. Live news should not be exempt given the crap that comes out of faux news daily-far worse than any profane language is the profanity they put forth as "news" and "fact". What we need returned is the truth in broadcasting laws that were in place that kept ilk like fox murdoch from broadcasting lies.

    1. D- trolling. You really didn't think anyone was going to fall for that did you?

    2. You're as boring as you are stupid. Here, kittens.

    3. Shorter AKLA
      "What we need is for me to be given the power to direct thugs to silence speech I don't like, according arbitrary rules I make up as I go along."

  12. The FCC's not the only one that's incoherent. Sullum's so-called "reasonable" approach of embracing indecency is rather the ravings of a lunatic the Founders would have jailed as a threat to a civilized society that it is. As then, only the God on whom we've turned our backs in our rush to barbarism as evidenced in our mad whoring lust for abortion and sodomy can save us now, though He has no earthly reason to do so, so thankfully He's no earthly God. Lord have mercy.

    1. On crosses for our sins!

      If it doesn't work, hey, at least it's moar gay sadism bondage porn like Mel Gibson's Passion.

    2. "As then, only the God on whom we've turned our backs"
      Your sky-daddy fantasies are yours, not mine.

      1. Market fundamentalism is your fantasy, not mine.

    3. No, no, no. You just don't get it at all, Rusty. The sodomy is a strategy to help avoid abortions. Did you really think you could get pregnant that way?

  13. The thing I really don't get about FCC regulation, MPAA ratings, and american society in general is why the fuck is sex so taboo, but violence is just dandy. Aparently its perfrectly okay for a 13 year old to see people getting shot, often in a glorified manner, but god forbid he see a single boob. I mean its not like he spent the first few months of his life sucking on one on a daily basis. Am I the only one who (if I had kids) would rather them see a sex scene than a scene showing Agent Coolguy heroically wasting a bunch of people with a baretta, as though ending human lives was noble and virtuous? And before all the right-leaning liberterians that dominate this sight jump down my throat and call me a bleeding heart liberal, let me clarify that I am absolutely opposed to the whole "censor violence for the children" movement that Hillary Clinton and the like were/are a part of.

    1. I just happen to think that sexual content AND violence arn't particulary damaging to the young psyche, but if I had to guess, I'd say violence is worse. Natural activity virtually all adults enthusiastically participate in? OH GOD KIDS LOOK AWAY! Fucking killing people with no apparent remorse? Whatver, its cool.

    2. why the fuck is sex so taboo, but violence is just dandy.

      Because initiation-of-violence is necessary to protect privation property rights. And sex isn't.


      1. Premise Three: Our way of living?industrial civilization?is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence.

        ~Derrick Jensen

        1. Ooh doomsday Dianetics!

          You: See that good thing there.
          Me: Yeah.
          You: It's really actually bad, so give me money to talk about it more and tell you the deep SECRETS and TRUTH!
          Me: I'm sorry I don't go for those kinds of backdoor shenanigans and please put down my cat.

    3. Agent Coolguy heroically wasting a bunch of people with a baretta, as though ending human lives was noble and virtuous?

      Depends who's being wasted, and who's doing the wasting.

      If it wasn't some tin god with a badge and a gun, and the wastees were actual bad dudes, then I generally wouldn't have a problem with kids seeing it. Liam Neeson in Taken, for instance.

      In that case, I do consider it "noble and virtuous". But not when it's violence for violence sake... I abhor the Saw movies.

    4. It's because sex is thought to be attractive, but violence not. Only the attractive is restricted.

  14. Speaking of arbitrary rules, can you imagine the meetings where supposedly intelligent people sit at a table and discuss whether 'dickhead' can be used in some circumstances but not others?
    Look, just tape it and run it! Instant reality-comedy hit! Sponsors lined up for miles!

  15. The issue, frankly, is that if the FCC does not keep the 'indecency' fig leaf somebody might figure out that their real job - renting out bandwidth to the highest bidders - could be taken care of by two part-time accountants and a pet gerbil.

    1. ^^^ Winner.

  16. Now that nine out of 10 households are served by cable, satellite, or fiber-optic TV and children commonly watch video from nonbroadcast sources

    What are the odds the FCC will argue that in that case, they should have the power to regulate indecency on all those other mediums as well as broadcast TV?

  17. If they are still making the argument that the airwaves are owned by the public, why do they never consider the significant proportion of the public that positively wants to hear the word "fuck" and see naked tits on broadcast TV? I can't get cable where I live, dammit. What about my rights? I'm offended by censorship and they put that shit on TV all the time.

    1. You should testify before a congressional committee. If the government will not pay for you to have access to television broadcasts of tits and foul language, it is obviously impeding on your right to access those things, which in my book constitutes a war on men.

  18. Yo, fuck the FCC.

    1. Y'all f*ck 'em. I'm picky about where I put that part of my anatomy.

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