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FCC Launches Obscenity Info Site

With indecency complaints soaring, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is launching a new site to educate the public about laws governing the public airing of obscene, indecent and profane material.

The FCC receives hundreds of thousands of complaints each year alleging violation of the restrictions on obscene, indecent, or profane programming. Last year, the FCC fielded more than a million complaints from the public over questionable material broadcast over television and radio.

During the first six months of this year, more than 160,000 complaints hit the FCC, which has administrative responsibility for enforcing the law that governs these types of broadcasts.

The new FCC site explains how to file a complaint and what happens to the complaint once the commission receives it.

The site also answers frequently asked questions on a wide range of topics ranging from how a consumer can determine the status of a complaint he or she filed to what makes material obscene, indecent or profane.

The FCC carefully explains that the First Amendment does not protect obscene speech and that public broadcasters are prohibited from airing obscene programming at any time. The rub, of course, is defining obscene speech.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, obscene material meets the following criteria: (1) an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (i.e. material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts); (2) the material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and (3) the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The Supreme Court has indicated that this test is designed to cover hard-core pornography.

Indecent material, on the other hand, is sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity. For this reason, the courts have held that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely.

Indecent material may, however, be restricted to avoid its broadcast during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience. The FCC has determined, with the approval of the courts, that there is a reasonable risk that children will be in the audience from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The FCC prohibits station licensees from broadcasting indecent material during that time period.

The FCC explains that "profane language," a frequent source of FCC complaints, includes those words that are "so highly offensive that their mere utterance in the context presented may, in legal terms, amount to a nuisance."

The FCC warns broadcasters that, depending on the context, it considers the "F-word" and those words (or variants thereof) that are as highly offensive as the "F-word" to be "profane language" that cannot be broadcast between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The site explains how to file a complaint and what happens to the complaint once the FCC receives it.