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Obscenity, Indecency & Profanity - FAQ

How do I file a complaint? The FCC accepts complaints electronically, by letter, email, facsimile or telephone. If possible, your complaint should include the call sign of the station, the community where the station is located (city, state), and the date and time of the broadcast. Although not required, including this information greatly assists the FCC in processing your complaint quickly and efficiently. Your complaint should also contain enough detail about the material broadcast that the FCC can understand the exact words and language used. It is very helpful if the complaint includes a partial tape or transcript of the aired material or a significant excerpt. Please see the link How to file a Complaint for more complete information, including information on FCC web and mailing addresses.

Do I need to provide a tape or transcript of the program? No, a tape or transcript is not required. However, the FCC's determination as to whether material is indecent, profane, or potentially obscene rests upon its context. Your submission of a tape or transcript assists us in determining context, but an excerpt or description of the material may also be sufficient. FCC staff will usually send a letter of inquiry to the station if the complaint indicates that the program may be obscene, indecent or profane. At that stage of the investigation, the FCC usually requests a tape and transcript from the station.

What happens to my complaint once it is filed? The Complaint Process Flow Chart link provides a general description of how the FCC processes complaints. Once a complaint is filed, FCC staff scan or otherwise record it in a database. The complaint is then forwarded to the staff responsible for initial review. A station licensee may receive a letter of inquiry from the FCC requesting the information necessary to complete the investigation. At any stage of the investigation, if the FCC concludes that we need more information to process your complaint, or that the material is not obscene, indecent or profane, we will notify you by letter. If the FCC determines the material is indecent or profane, we will take further action, including possibly imposing monetary penalties. If the FCC determines the material is arguably obscene, we will refer the matter to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice has authority to bring criminal prosecutions for the broadcast of obscene, indecent, or profane material. If convicted in a federal district court, violators may be subject to criminal fines and/or imprisonmant.

The Law

What are the statutes and rules regarding the broadcast of obscene, indecent, and profane programming? Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1464, prohibits the utterance of any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication. Consistent with a subsequent statute and court case, the Commission's rules prohibit the broadcast of indecent material during the period of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. FCC decisions also prohibit the broadcast of profane material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Civil enforcement of these requirements rests with the FCC, and is an important part of the FCC's overall responsibilities. At the same time, the FCC must be mindful of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 326 of the Communications Act, which prohibit the FCC from censoring program material, or interfering with broadcasters' free speech rights.

What makes material obscene? Obscene speech is not protected by the First Amendment and broadcasters are prohibited, by statute and regulation, from airing obscene programming at any time. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, to be obscene, material must meet a three-prong test: (1) an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (i.e., material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts); (2) the material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and (3) the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The Supreme Court has indicated that this test is designed to cover hard-core pornography.

What makes material indecent? Indecent material contains sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity. For this reason, the courts have held that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely. It may, however, be restricted to avoid its broadcast during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience. The FCC has determined, with the approval of the courts, that there is a reasonable risk that children will be in the audience from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., local time. Therefore, the FCC prohibits station licensees from broadcasting indecent material during that period.

Material is indecent if, in context, it depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. In each case, the FCC must determine whether the material describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities and, if so, whether the material is patently offensive.

In our assessment of whether material is patently offensive, context is critical. The FCC looks at three primary factors when analyzing broadcast material: (1) whether the description or depiction is explicit or graphic; (2) whether the material dwells on or repeats at length descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory organs; and (3) whether the material appears to pander or is used to titillate or shock. No single factor is determinative. The FCC weighs and balances these factors because each case presents its own mix of these, and possibly other, factors.

What makes material profane? Profane language includes those words that are so highly offensive that their mere utterance in the context presented may, in legal terms, amount to a nuisance. In its Golden Globe Awards Order the FCC warned broadcasters that, depending on the context, it would consider the F-Word and those words (or variants thereof) that are as highly offensive as the F-Word to be profane language that cannot be broadcast between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

What is the safe harbor? The safe harbor refers to the time period between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., local time. During this time period, a station may air indecent and/or profane material. In contrast, there is no safe harbor for the broadcast of obscene material. Obscene material is entitled to no First Amendment protection, and may not be broadcast at any time.

Are there certain words that are always unlawful? No. Offensive words may be profane and/or indecent depending on the context. In the Golden Globe Awards Order, the FCC stated that it would address the legality of broadcast language on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the context presented, use of the F-Word or other words as highly offensive as the F-Word may be both indecent and profane, if aired between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Does the FCC monitor particular radio or television programs? The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Section 326 of the Communications Act prohibit the FCC from censoring broadcasters. The FCC does not, therefore, monitor particular programs or particular performers, but rather enforces the prohibition on obscenity, indecency and profanity in response to complaints.

Does the FCC regulate violence on television? The FCC does not currently regulate the broadcast of violent programming. On July 28, 2004, however, the FCC opened an inquiry into violent programming and its effect on children. The FCC has received public comments and opinions from many segments of the public. The FCC will publish and make available the report resolving the inquiry on the FCC website.

Do the FCC's rules apply to cable and satellite programming? In the past, the FCC has enforced the indecency and profanity prohibitions only against conventional broadcast services, not against subscription programming services such as cable and satellite. However, the prohibition against obscene programming applies to subscription programming services at all times.

FCC Actions And Statistics

How many complaints has the FCC received about obscene, indecent, or profane programming? The Complaint And Enforcement Statistics link to the left provides not only the previous month's count of the complaints received for the current year, but also lists the total number of complaints received by the FCC since 2000. The chart also identifies the number of programs cited by those complaints and categorizes those programs by service -- broadcast television, broadcast radio, and cable/satellite. Finally, the chart provides information about the number and status of the forfeiture proceedings initiated by the Commission for each year since 1993.

What is a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture? Any person or entity that the FCC determines has willfully or repeatedly violated the indecency, obscenity and/or profanity prohibitions is potentially liable for a forfeiture penalty, which is a monetary sanction paid to the United States Treasury. To impose such a penalty, the FCC must first issue a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture containing the FCC's preliminary findings and the amount of the proposed forfeiture. That decision contains the Commission's findings that, based on a preponderance of the evidence, the person or entity at issue has apparently violated the indecency, obscenity, and/or profanity prohibitions. The person or entity against which the penalty is proposed then may respond, in writing, and explain why no such forfeiture penalty should be imposed. The Commission will then issue a forfeiture order formally imposing the monetary sanction if it finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the person or entity has violated the indecency, obscenity or profanity prohibitions.

TV Ratings and Channel Blocking

Can I block programming that offends me or my family? Yes. FCC rules require all televisions 13 inches or larger to include the technology allowing you to block unwanted programming. Please see TV Ratings and Channel Blocking.

What is the V-chip? The V-chip is a technology built into your television set that allows you to block television programming you don't want your children to watch. Most television shows now include a rating, as established by the broadcast or cable industry. The rating appears in the corner of your television screen during the first 15 seconds of a program and in TV programming guides. This rating is encoded into the programs; the V-chip technology reads the encoded information and blocks shows accordingly. Using the remote control, parents can program the V-chip to block certain shows based on their ratings. If you lose your remote control/device or need help programming the V-chip, contact the manufacturer of your television set for a replacement or operating instructions.

The FCC requires all new television sets manufactured on or after January 1, 2000, that are 13 inches or larger to contain the V-chip technology. You can usually tell whether your television has a V-chip by looking at the packaging, including the owner's manual. If you no longer have these materials, the V-chip option usually appears as part of the television's menu if the set is equipped with this technology. If you want the V-chip function but your television set does not have it, you can get a set-top box, which works the same as a set with a built-in V-chip. Personal computers that include a television tuner and a monitor of 13 inches or greater are also required to include the V-chip technology. For complete information on the V-chip and other methods of preventing your children from viewing offensive material, see TV Ratings and Channel Blocking.

What do the television ratings mean? Ratings appear in the corner of your television screen during the first 15 seconds of each television program. The ratings are also included in many magazines that give TV ratings and in the television listings of many newspapers. All television programming is rated except news, sports, and unedited movies on premium cable channels. For more information on how you can control what your children view, please see TV Ratings and Channel Blocking. Programs receive one of the following six possible ratings:

  • TV-Y, (All Children) found only in children's shows, means that the show is appropriate for all children;
  • TV-7, (Directed to Older Children) found only in children's shows, means that the show is most appropriate for children age 7 and up;
  • TV-G (General Audience) means that the show is suitable for all ages but is not necessarily a children's show;
  • TV-PG (Parental Guidance Suggested) means that parental guidance is suggested and that the show may be unsuitable for younger children (this rating may also include a V for violence, S for sexual situations, L for language, or D for suggestive dialog);
  • TV-14 (Parents Strongly Cautioned) means that the show may be unsuitable for children under 14 (V, S, L, or D may accompany a rating of TV-14); and
  • TV-MA (Mature Audience Only) means that the show is for mature audiences only and may be unsuitable for children under 17 (V, S, L, or D may accompany a rating of TV-MA).

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