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Obscenity, Indecency, Profanity - Complaint Process

The FCC bases enforcement actions on complaints of indecent, profane or obscene material received from the public. Please see The Complaint Process Flow Chart for a graphical representation of the FCC's review process. Once the FCC receives a complaint via U.S. mail, e-mail, facsimile, or otherwise, staff log it into one of several databases managed by the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau and the Enforcement Bureau. These databases enable the staff to track and share complaints among those who will subsequently review them.

FCC staff reviews each complaint to determine whether it alleges information sufficient to suggest that a violation of the obscenity, profanity or indecency prohibition has occurred. If it appears that a violation may have occurred, the staff will commence an investigation, which may include sending a Letter Of Inquiry (“LOI”) to the broadcast station. Depending on the case, an LOI may ask the station to confirm or deny the allegations in the complaint and provide copies of any tapes or transcripts of the program at issue.

If the description of the material contained in the complaint is not sufficient to determine whether a violation of the statute or FCC rules regarding indecent, obscene, and profane material may have occurred, FCC staff will send the complainant a dismissal letter explaining the deficiencies in the complaint and how to have it reinstated. In such a case, the complainant has the option of re-filing the complaint with additional information, filing a petition for reconsideration, or filing an application for review (appeal) to the full Commission.

If the facts and information contained in a complaint suggest that a violation of the statute or FCC rules regarding indecency, obscenity, and profane material did not occur, FCC staff will send the complainant a letter denying the complaint, or the FCC may deny the complaint by public order. In either situation, the complainant has the option of filing a petition for reconsideration or, if the decision is a staff action, an application for review (appeal) to the full Commission.

If the complaint is dismissed or denied by letter, FCC staff also include a copy of the Indecency Fact Sheet, which reviews the FCC's authority over indecent, profane, or obscene material. The Indecency Fact Sheet is linked here.

If the FCC determines that the complained-of material was indecent, profane, and/or obscene, it may issue a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), which is a preliminary finding that the law or the Commission's rules have been violated. Subsequently, this preliminary finding may be confirmed, reduced, or rescinded when the FCC issues a Forfeiture Order.

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