Broadcasters found themselves facing a conundrum on Thursday when President Trump, in a meeting with Congressional leaders about immigration, reportedly referred to Haiti and certain African countries as “shithole countries.” 24-hour cable networks immediately reported on the President’s comments, repeating the crass term and even including it on their lower-thirds. Unlike their cable, newspaper, online and print brethren, however, broadcasters were forced to wrestle with the significant risk associated with the FCC’s still muddy indecency standards in relating the newsworthy incident to the public.
A quick refresher on the indecency laws applicable to broadcasters is in order. Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1464, prohibits the utterance of any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication. For material to be indecent, it must “depict sexual or excretory organs or activities and be patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” The Commission’s rules prohibit the broadcast of indecent and profane material between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Broadcasters violating the federal indecency laws face fines of up to $397,251 per violation or each day of a continuing violation, up to $3,666,930 for any single act or failure to act. Newspapers, cable networks, and Internet website providers are not subject to the FCC’s indecency laws.