By Andrew Gibson
Have you ever seen the episode of “Family Guy” in which Peter Griffin goes on a musical rant about the Federal Communications Commission supposedly ruins all of his fun? The lovable cartoon dad does his best Ethel Merman impression and sings about how the FCC ruins his fun by censoring crude humor on TV. He goes so far in the episode as to start his own “scandalous” network that challenges FCC regulations. It’s hilarious, really.
But in matters like this, it takes a gavel and dark robe, not a song, to make serious changes. In 1978, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation that the FCC could ban indecent material from broadcast airwaves between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The commission established this “safe-harbor” period in response to an angry father who wrote the commission after hearing George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue on the radio while driving with his young son. According to the decision, TV and radio are “pervasive” enough to reach children, so the FCC has grounds to ban indecent content during hours when they’d normally be awake.
Fast forward 33 years. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could redefine how much authority the FCC has over TV and radio airwaves. Soon to be in question is whether the commission can punish broadcasters the first time they air a fleeting expletive — which is an unscripted, indecent word spoken once — on TV or radio. Below is a screen shot from a New York Times article about the case, called FCC v. Fox Television Stations:
The Supreme Court ruled the FCC could punish broadcasters for airing a single fleeting expletive when it heard this same case in 2009. But the following year, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Here’s a screen shot from a Los Angeles Times story about its decision:
Next on the Supreme Court’s agenda, then, is an appeal by the FCC, which will try to prove its policy is not “unconstitutionally vague” and that it still protects viewers from indecency during safe-harbor hours.
If you’re like me, this is probably confusing. So, let’s take another route: rewind to 1978, and then fast forward again to 2011. But this time, think about your computer monitor, not your TV screen. While the Supreme Court prepares to decide what should be allowed on TV and the radio, here’s a look at what is allowed online.