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What Is the Difference between Obscene, Indecent, and Profane Programming?

The broadcast of obscene programming is prohibited by federal law at all times. Indecent or profane programming is prohibited during certain hours of the day. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the responsibility of enforcing the law that governs these broadcasts. There are certain actions that the Commission may take for the broadcast of obscene or indecent programming:

  • Revoking a station license
  • Imposing a monetary forfeiture
  • Issuing a warning

What Is the Law on Obscene Programming?

Obscene broadcasts are prohibited at all times and are not protected by the First Amendment. An obscene program is one that meets the following requirements:

  • An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient (sexual or lascivious) interest
  • The material must depict or describe, in an offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law
  • Taken as a whole, the material must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value

What Are Indecent Broadcasts?

Indecency is defined as language or material that depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards, sexual or excretory organs or activities. However, indecent programming does not rise to the level of obscene programming. Indecent programming may be restricted to avoid the chance that children may view it. Television and radio broadcasts that are deemed indecent and air between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. are subject to enforcement.

What Are Profane Broadcasts?

Profanity is defined as language or epithets tending to provoke violent resentment. It may also include language that is offensive to members of the public (i.e. a nuisance). Profanity is also prohibited on broadcasts between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

How Do I File a Complaint?

Enforcement by the FCC is based on documented complaints. These complaints come from the public about such broadcasting. You may file a written complaint and send it to the FCC, Enforcement Bureau, Investigations and Hearings Division, 445 12th Street, SW, Washington, D.C. 20554. You will be asked to provide:

  • Date and time of alleged broadcast
  • Call sign of station involved
  • Information regarding what was actually said during the broadcast (i.e. a significant excerpt of the program or a full or partial tape or transcript)

The information must be sufficiently detailed so that the FC can determine the words and language actually used and their context. If there seems to have been a violation, the FCC will start an investigation. Otherwise, the complaint may be dismissed.

Do I Need a Lawyer Experienced in TV/Radio Broadcasting Issues?

Complaints come from people themselves so you probably will not need a lawyer if you wish to file one. A business lawyer may be able to inform you of the laws on indecent and obscene broadcasts.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 06-17-2018 08:34 PM PDT

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