How does the FCC police obscenity?

Enforcing Obscenity Regulations

The question still remains: Is the ability to police decency in broadcasting actually in the hands of the FCC, which has established no concrete guidelines? Or is it up to the individual companies to do what they think is best? How does public perception play into all this?

As it stands now, the FCC relies largely on public complaints to direct them toward FCC violations. Using the power granted to it in the Communications Act, the FCC determines the validity of these complaints on a case-by-case basis. If the reported instance is judged to be indecent or obscene, then the Commission penalizes those FCC license holders. In fact, under the direction of its current chairman Michael Powell, the FCC has increased penalties with H.R. 3717. This bill raises the fines for obscenity and indecency considerably.

The FCC does not, however, have the ability to violate First Amendment rights regarding the freedom of speech. This, too, is outlined by the Communications Act and supported by the courts. But in most cases, the FCC doesn't end up facing this issue head-on. It only influences the content decisions broadcast companies make, through hefty fines and license revocation. Technically, the FCC is not the party enforcing the suspensions in these cases. Additionally, the FCC has built an elastic clause into its policy that states that obscenity is not protected under the First Amendment. And because the FCC itself decides what is obscene, it's legally in the clear in most situations.

As with many agencies in the U.S. government, you do have a voice in the FCC's decision-making process. The FCC has made itself open to public comment when considering rules and/or regulation issues.

To learn about current proposals, you can go to the FCC's Web site at To file a comment with the FCC, check out its Electronic Comment Filing system at You can get instructions for filling out these forms by e-mailing the FCC at You can also submit your comments by mail. To find out these procedures, contact the Office of the Secretary by phone at 202-418-0300 or 202-418-2970 (TTY only).

For more information on the FCC and related topics, check out the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links