CDT-PFF Supreme Court Brief in FCC v. Fox Case

by on August 8, 2008 · 20 comments

Supreme Court Along with my friends John Morris and Sophia Cope of the Center for Democracy & Technology, I have just submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the potentially historic free speech case FCC v. Fox, which will be heard in November.

[Reminder: The FCC v. Fox case is the indecency case involving the FCC’s new policy for "fleeting expletives." I wrote about the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision here. The full decision is here. By contrast, the so-called "Janet Jackson case" -- CBS v. FCC -- took place in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and that court recently handed down a decision that also went against the FCC. I wrote about the Third Circuit's decision here.]

The FCC v. Fox case could become the most important First Amendment-related Supreme Court case since FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, which just turned 30 years old last month. Of course, it could be that the Supreme Court simply sticks to the procedural questions regarding whether the FCC moved too far, too fast in reversing it’s long-standing policy of restraint regarding “fleeting expletives.” That’s essentially what the Second Circuit did. On the other hand, the Supremes might reach the substantive First Amendment issues tied up in the Pacifica case. We just won’t know for sure until the case is handed down.

Regardless, in the joint CDT-PFF amicus brief filed today, we argue that the FCC has both gone too far procedurally and that “the time is rapidly approaching for this Court to find that broadcast, like the Internet and other means of mass communication, ‘is entitled to the highest protection from government intrusion’ and that there is no longer a factual ‘basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.’” Citing Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. at 863, 870.”

A more detailed summary of our argument follows below.

Our brief contends that the “pervasiveness rationale,” which is the basis of the FCC’s authority to regulate broadcast programming, is being challenged by technological convergence, the proliferation of new media platforms, and the widespread availability of parental control technologies. Video content available over broadcast television is available over a variety of other platforms, such as the Internet and mobile devices, and an increasing number of households subscribe to satellite or cable video services. “With broadcast television being just one of the myriad of ways that people can access lawful content (including indecent content), it no longer makes sense from a constitutional or policy perspective to give broadcast speech less First Amendment protection,” we argue.

Parental controls, such as the V-Chip and set-top box controls, allow parents to block content they deem offensive or inappropriate. Better yet, the rise of VCRs, DVD recorders, video on demand, and digital video recorders means that parents can tailor media consumption to their specific needs and values. Those tools are widely available and provide a less restrictive alternative to government regulation. As a result, the FCC can no longer justify broadcast television content censorship on “pervasiveness” grounds. [I have written much more about that point here, here and here.]

Our joint brief also states that complaint data the FCC cites as justification for the expansion of indecency enforcement, has been inflated through accounting changes. These changes in the way the complaints are counted, which were only instituted for indecency complaints, are in violation of the APA. These complaints, mostly generated by a single advocacy group, cannot be a substitute for an analysis of “community standards” and essentially represent a “heckler’s veto” that violates the First Amendment rights of other viewers.

The brief also cites the Commission’s inconsistent analysis of what it deems “indecent” as a violation of both the First Amendment rights of broadcasters and the APA. The inconsistency in what the FCC finds as indecent has a chilling effect on the free expression of content providers and provides inadequate guidance to broadcasters, which is required under FCC statutes.

The CDT-PFF brief can be found online here and I have also embedded the document below via the Scribd reader. [And those interested in this case might also be interested my recent law review article: "Why Regulate Broadcasting: Toward a Consistent First Amendment Standard for the Information Age."]

Incidentally, other briefs that have been filed in the matter can be found here. And, last month, I wrote about how personally troubled I was about the lack of support from liberals who have already filed in this case. See: “Liberals Abandoning the First Amendment, Part 3: The Fox Case.”

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