FCC mulls relaxing policy for TV indecency

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering making changes to its rules that bar TV and radio stations from airing indecent material.

The commission on Monday issued a request for public comment on a proposal that would focus on penalizing only “egregious” cases. The proposal would be a shift away from the agency’s past policy, adopted during the Bush administration, of penalizing even “fleeting expletives.”

{mosads}The commission asked for input on how it should handle expletives and brief non-sexual displays of nudity. The rules only cover broadcast TV and radio stations—not cable, satellite or Internet content.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who plans to step down in the coming weeks, did not issue any indecency fines in his four-year tenure. He had noted that the agency’s authority was in legal limbo due to lawsuits claiming the policy violated constitutional free speech rights.

The Supreme Court overturned two indecency fines last year, concluding the enforcement policy was “vague.” But the court’s decision did not address the constitutional argument and left the FCC’s indecency power intact. After the decision, Genachowski said he would instruct his Enforcement Bureau to review the commission’s rules. 

While the FCC waited for the Supreme Court and reviewed its policy, more than 1.4 million complaints accumulated. Thousands of complaints often cover a single controversial incident.

The FCC announced on Monday that it has cleared out about 70 percent of that backlog, or 1 million complaints. Commission officials began by rejecting complaints that were older than the statute of limitations or beyond the FCC’s authority. 

Lawmakers, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), and parents’ advocacy groups have urged the FCC to do more to protect children from offensive material on public airwaves. But free speech groups attack the rules as censorship, and any new policy is likely to result in more legal challenges.

The task of drafting and implementing the new rules will fall to Genachowski’s successor, who has yet to be named.

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