FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION, et al. v. FOX TELEVISION STATIONS, INC., et al.
Supreme Court Cases
556 U.S. 502 (2009)
Reversed and remanded. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.
Federal law banned the broadcasting of “any … indecent … language,” 18 U. S. C. §1464, which includes references to sexual or excretory activity or organs, see FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U. S. 726. Having first defined the prohibited speech in 1975, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a cautious, but gradually expanding, approach to enforcing the statutory prohibition. In 2004, the FCC’s Golden Globes Order declared for the first time that an expletive (nonliteral) use of the F-Word or the S-Word could be actionably indecent, even when the word is used only once. This case concerned isolated utterances of the F- and S-Words during two live broadcasts aired by Fox Television Stations, Inc. In its order upholding the indecency findings, the FCC, inter alia, stated that the Golden Globes Order eliminated any doubt that fleeting expletives could be actionable; declared that under the new policy, a lack of repetition weighs against a finding of indecency, but is not a safe harbor; and held that both broadcasts met the new test because one involved a literal description of excrement and both invoked the F-Word. The order did not impose sanctions for either broadcast. The Second Circuit set aside the agency action, declining to address the constitutionality of the FCC’s action but finding the FCC’s reasoning inadequate under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).