NPR is advocating for the FCC to loosen its policies regarding broadcast indecency and retreat from a zero-tolerance approach to one that targets only egregious infractions.
After the FCC solicited comment from broadcasters regarding whether to revise its indecency standards, NPR’s general counsel submitted the network's 20-page recommendation to the agency June 19, the day comments were due. Many other broadcast networks, including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, have long pushed for a similar loosening of restrictions and reduction of fines.
NPR advocates an “egregious cases” policy — the FCC's term — “because a more restrained approach to indecency and profanity enforcement would better accommodate the protected speech of public radio broadcasters,” the counsel wrote.
At present, the FCC does not take context into account when evaluating usages of profanity. NPR argued that the commission should adopt a more measured policy and dismiss cases such as one-time outbursts on live broadcasts, NPR said. Additionally, the network wrote, the agency should provide clearer guidelines for news and public-affairs broadcasters, particularly public broadcasters.
Part of public broadcasting’s mission to serve the public interest also “may require the use of language or other broadcast matter that is potentially objectionable to some,” the comment continued.
NPR’s comments to the FCC are similar to others filed by noncommercial broadcasters, including university-owned KUCR-FM in Riverside, Calif., which wrote that the agency’s blanket maximum fine of $325,000 per incident of indecency unfairly punishes small broadcasters.
“KUCR is terrified that something unintentional may go over the air, resulting from a misunderstanding, a mistake, a spontaneous remark that inadvertently lets an indecent word or phrase slip though,” wrote attorney John Crigler, representing the station. “For a small NCE broadcaster that momentary lapse is not an expensive cautionary lesson, but is fatal to its entire operation.”
Public TV stations have had publicized run-ins with indecency charges before. In 2006, the FCC fined San Mateo pubTV station KCSM $15,000 for airing an episode of the documentary series The Blues that contained profanity after a viewer complaint.
In a 2012 revisiting of an FCC indecency case, the Supreme Court ruled that Fox did not have to pay fines imposed for two uses of profanity during live awards shows and that the FCC’s guidelines for objectionable speech are unconstitutionally vague.