Can You Curse On-Air During a Government Shutdown? Reason Investigates

There's one fool-proof way to find out.


Tero Vesalainen/Dreamstime.com

National parks, new kinds of beer, and paychecks for hundreds of thousands of federal workers are just a few casualties of the ongoing partial government shutdown. And while the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security remain unfunded, the parts of the government authorized to shoot you are functioning just fine.

One agency that's not functioning like normal is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is in charge of enforcing federal laws against "obscene, indecent and profane broadcasts" on the radio and television. "Due to the partial government shutdown," the FCC notes at the top of its website, "the FCC suspended most operations at mid-day Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019."

That raises some burning questions: What happens if you curse on the air during a government shutdown? Will the FCC hunt you down and dole out punishment? Hungry for answers, I started investigating.

Profanity, according to a page on the agency's website, is banned on broadcast radio and TV from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The same goes for "indecent" content, which involves "sexual or excretory organs or activities."

But even when the government is functioning normally, the FCC doesn't actively seek out violators. Instead, the agency relies on consumers to notice banned content and file complaints. It's usually not until much later that the FCC takes punitive action. "Any enforcement that happens is way after the fact," Bob Corn-Revere, an attorney specializing in First Amendment law and communications, media, and information technology law told me. "It isn't instantaneous."

There are two major kinds of complaints you can file with the FCC: formal and informal. Formal complaints cost $225 to file and "are heard very much like court proceedings," according to FindLaw.com. "When [the FCC] receives a complaint, it looks [at] the complaint in due course and then makes a determination whether or not enforcement is warranted," says Corn-Revere.

Informal complaints, on the other hand, cost nothing. While the FCC does look them over, it usually only takes action based on "trends or patterns," reports Wired.

Both formal and informal complaints can normally be filed online. But links to the FCC's "Consumer Complaint Center" appear to be redirecting users to a page titled: "Impact of Potential Lapse in Funding on Commission Operations." Included on that page are links to the FCC's "Public Notice" regarding the funding lapse.

According to the notice, "the systems unavailable" during a shutdown "include, among others, the Consumer Complaint Center (including the main FCC Call Center and the American Sign Language Consumer Support Video Line)."

So if consumers can't file complaints with the FCC during the shutdown, does that mean you can curse on the air without fear of reprisal? Not necessarily. Angry consumers can wait until the shutdown's over, or file a complaint via mail. That being said, the shutdown will certainly slow down the process. And it's possible some folks who planned to file a complaint online will have forgotten by the time the shutdown is over.

Ultimately, I can't know for sure what will happen to people who swear on the air while the shutdown is ongoing. I reached out to the FCC's Office of Media Relations but did not hear back (probably because their representatives are furloughed). I also tweeted at FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, and will update this post if I hear back.

There's still one way to find out what might happen. Broadcasters, I'm looking at you.