It is a violation of federal law to air obscene programming at any time or indecent programming or profane language from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Congress has given the FCC the responsibility for administratively enforcing these laws. The FCC may revoke a station license, impose a monetary forfeiture or issue a warning if a station airs obscene, indecent or profane material.
Obscene broadcasts are prohibited at all times
Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and cannot be broadcast at any time. The Supreme Court has established that to be considered obscene, material must meet a three-pronged test:
- An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.
- The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law.
- The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Indecent broadcast restrictions
The FCC has defined broadcast indecency as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities." Indecent programming contains patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity. The courts hold that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely. FCC rules prohibit indecent speech on broadcast radio and television between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.
Profane broadcast restrictions
The FCC defines profanity as "including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance." Like indecency, profane speech is prohibited on broadcast radio and television between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
In making obscenity, indecency and profanity determinations, context is key. The FCC staff must analyze what was actually aired, the meaning of what was aired and the context in which it was aired. The FCC asks complainants to provide the following information:
- Information regarding the details of what was actually said or depicted during the broadcast. Sufficient detail must be provided regarding the words or language used, or the images or scenes depicted during the broadcast, and the context of those words, language, images or scenes.
- The date and time of the broadcast. Indecent or profane speech broadcast between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. is not actionable.
- The call sign, channel, frequency and location of the station involved. The name of the program, DJ, personality, song or film, or network are also helpful.
This information will help us to quickly and efficiently process your complaint. The FCC does not require tapes or transcripts in support of complaints, but such materials may be helpful and should be provided if available. Any documentation you provide to the FCC about your complaint becomes part of the FCC's records and may not be returned.
Filing a complaint
You have multiple options for filing a complaint with the FCC:
- File a complaint online
- By phone: 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322); TTY: 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322)
- By mail (please include your name, address, contact information and as much detail about your complaint as possible):
Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20554
Enforcement procedures and filing complaints
Enforcement actions are based on documented complaints received from the public about obscene, indecent or profane material. FCC staff review each complaint to determine whether it contains sufficient information to suggest that there has been a violation of the obscenity, indecency or profanity laws. If it appears that a violation may have occurred, the staff will start an investigation, which may include a letter of inquiry to the broadcast station.
If the description of the whether a violation of the statute or FCC rules regarding obscene, indecent 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 either a petition for reconsideration, or, if the decision is a staff action, an application for review to the full Commission.
If the facts and information contained in the complaint suggest that a violation of the statute or FCC rules regarding obscenity, indecency and profanity 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 either a petition for reconsideration or, if the decision is a staff action, an application for review to the full Commission.
If the FCC determines that the complained-of material was obscene, indecent and/or profane, it may issue a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL), which is a preliminary finding that the law or the FCC'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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