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FCC Indecency Rule

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The FCC Indecency Rule restricts the use of obscene language in television and radio during certain hours in order to limit minors' exposure to such language.

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The FCC Indecency Rule restricts the use of indecent, obscene and profane language in television and radio broadcasting in order to limit the exposure of minors to such language.  This rule is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FTC) a federal agency that was established by the Communications Act of 1934 and regulates interstate and international communications via radio, television, wire, satellite and cable.

The FCC Indecency Policy was adopted in 2001 in order to provide guidance to broadcast licensees regarding compliance with the FCC's case law interpreting the broadcast indecency statute:

  • Policy Statement[1]
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1464: Broadcasting obscene language- "Whoever utters any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."[2]
  • 47 CFR § 73.3999: Enforcement of 18 U.S.C.1464 (restrictions on the transmission of obscene and indecent material)- "(a) No licensee of a radio or television broadcast station shall broadcast any material which is obscene. (b) No licensee of a radio or television broadcast station shall broadcast
    on any day between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. any material which is indecent."[3]
  • 47 U.S.C. § 312(a)(6): Administrative Sanctions - "The Commission may revoke any station license or constructionpermit for violation of section 1304, 1343, or 1464 of title 18."[4]
  • 47 U.S.C. § 503(b)(1)(D): Forfeitures - "Any person who is determined by the Commission to have violated any provision of section 1304, 1343, or 1464 of title 18; shall be liable to the United States for a forfeiture penalty."[5]

In 2005, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act[6] increased the penalities against broadcasters who were in violation of the FCC Indecency Rules.

Fleeting Expletives

Fleeting expletives occur when broadcasters are not aware that certain language is about to occur and they are therefore uable to prevent broadcast of such language.  The FFC would not normally require sanctions due to the fact that the broadcasts contain only a fleeting and isolated utterance within a live, spontaneous programming.  There are exceptions to graphic and explicit references to sexual activities that would not be tolerated, despite the fleeting reference.[7]


FCC v. Pacifica Foundation[8]

In 1978, a case arose where a radio station aired George Carlin's monologue, "Filthy Words." In this monologue, Carlin spoke about words that could not be said on the public airwaves.

The court upheld the FCC's authority to regulate the broadcasting of indecent material and restricted broadcasters from broadcasting such material during certain hours of the day when children are likely to be exposed to such language.

Fox Television Stations, Inc. v. FCC[9]

This recent case came about due to the inconsistent enforcement of the FCC Indecency Policy. The FCC had placed a ban on broadcasts with even “fleeting expletives.”

The courts found that the "FCC’s policy violates the First Amendment because it is unconstitutionally vague, creating a chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here."


  1. http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Enforcement/Orders/2001/fcc01090.pdf
  2. http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/uscode/18/I/71/1464
  3. http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/cfr_2009/octqtr/pdf/47cfr73.3999.pdf
  4. http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/uscode/47/5/III/I/312
  5. http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/uscode/47/5/V/503
  6. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.uscongress/legislation.109s193
  7. http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Enforcement/Orders/2001/fcc01090.pdf
  8. http://laws.findlaw.com/us/438/726.html
  9. http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/3c69eb90-e36b-4ff8-9658-53d6cd36c060/1/doc/06-1760-ag_opn2.pdf#xml=http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/3c69eb90-e36b-4ff8-9658-53d6cd36c060/1/hilite/

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