Free Minds & Free Markets

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

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

Tero Vesalainen/Dreamstime.comTero Vesalainen/Dreamstime.comNational 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 "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.

Photo Credit: Tero Vesalainen/

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  • A Lady of Reason||

    Well, you can give it an "F-ing" chance ;).... Good while it lasts, I guess...

  • 0x1000||

    Speaking of indecent speech...

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Angry consumers can wait until the shutdown's over, or file a complaint via mail.

    If you're the type to complain about an errant swear, you're the type with enough free time to hold onto your complaint until the state can act on it on your behalf.

  • Jerryskids||

    And probably complaining about what's on your cable TV.

    If the original mandate of the FCC was to regulate the public airwaves, a scarce resource needing a traffic cop, how much smaller are they now than 30 or 40 years ago when cable and satellite weren't so big? And how the hell do they justify poking their nose into the internet?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Why hold it. It'll go in the inbox and be read as soon as the backpay plus overtime starts a'flowin'.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    Investigative (almost) reporting FTW

  • Rich||

    Hungry for answers, I started investigating cursing on the air.

  • Uncle Adolf’s Gas and Grill||


  • sharmota4zeb||

    The Department of Homeland Security is shut down, which means if you email porn to, she won't get the attachment until she comes back to work.

    Anyway ... I remember the 1980's when America had racial equality and harmony. Then we saw Janet Jackson's nipple on TV and everything fell apart.

  • Ray McKigney||

    No one would even have known it was her nipple if they hadn't made such a BFD about it. That was the beginning of the end.

  • Longtobefree||

    Are you SURE it was her nipple?
    Accidental wardrobe malfunctions are planned carefully enough it could have been CGI.

  • operagost||

    That nipple thing happened in, like, 2004.

  • I'm Not Sure||

    "paychecks for hundreds of thousands of federal workers are just a few casualties"

    They'll get their paychecks. I'm sure it wouldn't be too hard to put together a long list of people who'd be willing to sign up for a paid vacation.

  • dangfitz||

    If Congress "Shall make No Law... abridging the Freedom of Speech, or of the Press...", then from where did they get the authority to create the FCC? And from where did the FCC get the power to abridge freedom of speech?

  • I'm Not Sure||

    It's for the children.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    It's freedom of speech not freeness of speech. Pay the fine, wrecker.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Congress didn't make it, an unaccountable alphabet agency did... totes constitutional.

  • Longtobefree||

    From the same dictionary that says "shall not be infringed" allows all kinds of infringement.
    From the same dictionary that says "Without due process" means the cops can take your stuff without even filing charges.
    From the same dictionary that says "confront your accuser" allows all kinds of anonymous accusations.

  • Don't look at me!||

    Ultimately, I can't know for sure what will happen to people who swear on the air while the shutdown is ongoing.
    Well, they will go straight to hell, won't they?

  • 0x1000||

    Dude you can't say h*ell on the internet, ok?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

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

    No. There is no shutdown. There is a pause in the flow of some paperwork from some alphabet agencies. All that means is they'll get your fine and sentence 3 months later.

  • strat||

    It may depend on whether the functionaries work in a leased building or not. To paraphrase an adage about losing an eye, it's all fun and games until the USG misses lease payments to private landlords. Then, it is sport.

  • BigT||

    If this is what passes for AI or robot learning, we are in a heap of trouble. Maybe Russkie trolls?

  • Man from Earth||

    A better question should be :- why is it ok for democrats to swear and they all cheer and yet when Trump uses the phrase sh*thole countries, this make the news cycle for 2 weeks. Just look at the reaction of the pathetic news media when Trump dared to call MS13 'animals'
    The entire news media came out in condemnation not even caring about the fact they were literally supporting a murderous gang a rapists and criminals just so they could attempt to score pathetic political points. It was absolutely ridiculous.

  • 0x1000||

    I mean, isn't all politics pretty much a shitshow? We're all pretty much here to watch the train wreck that keeps on wrecking.

  • 0x1000||

    Keep going! You'll get it one of these times!

  • Longtobefree||

    Evidently, these links do not lead to a web training seminar where proper use of the English language is taught.

  • ColoradoKook||

    The same goes for "indecent" content, which involves "sexual or excretory organs or activities."

    Wait, so I can't see someone shit on TV before 10 p.m.?


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