FCC v. Fox Television Stations

556 U.S. 502 (2009)

In 2004, Fox was fined for the use of fleeting expletives during its broadcast of the Billboard Music Awards in 2002 and 2003. The FCC claimed that it had a pressing need to protect young children from obscenity in the easily accessible medium of broadcasting—a position the FCC has maintained since the 1974 decision in FCC v. Pacifica (although it has not been enforced in a standard way). Fox claimed that they were not given fair notice of the FCC’s new regulations and that the current framework is too vague and arbitrary.

With ARN attorney Gregory Stuart Smith, the SPLC filed a brief in support of Fox in 2011. The SPLC has an interest in this case because of its unique effect on student broadcasting. Student broadcasting networks are chronically short of funds and are thus unable to pay an excessive fine. In addition, since they are made up of students learning the broadcasting trade, they could be more prone to mistakes. The SPLC points out many cases in which the FCC will fine one group but not another. This makes it difficult for student broadcasters to cover issues that are important to their constituents.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the FCC, finding that the agency’s change in policy was protectable and did not need to be held to a higher standard or review nor justified by more substantial reasons than those at the creation of the policy. 

Read the decision.