The FCC and the F-Word – An Update


(By John Garziglia) In the radio interview immediately following the Detroit Lions loss to Buffalo, Head Coach Matt Patricia dropped the F-bomb, saying: “Look, for us, it’s not different. We go out, we compete, we try to win and we try to f***ing get better every week”.

So, is the radio station subject to an FCC fine or not?

It has been several years since the FCC last took adverse action against a broadcast station for an alleged indecent, profane or obscene broadcast. According to the FCC’s own compilation, the most recent was a 2015 Notice of Apparent Liability against Roanoke television station WBDJ for a brief and inadvertent depiction of an erect penis during the evening news.  The television station’s extensive Opposition to the Notice of Apparently Liability takes direct aim at the fleeting nature of the complained-of content, the constitutionality of the FCC’s indecency standards, and the amount of the fine, and is worth a read.

In a now almost-forgotten action, the FCC in 2013 opened a proceeding to seek comment on the FCC’s indecency policies. Ironically, on April Fool’s Day of that year, the FCC released a Public Notice opening GN Docket No. 13-86 seeking comments from the public as to whether there should be changes to broadcast indecency policies. In response to that indecency Public Notice, some 102,958 comments were filed by the public.

The FCC asked in the indecency Public Notice whether the deliberate and repetitive use of expletives in a patently offensive manner should be required to find indecency, or whether simply “isolated expletives” were sufficient.   The Commission stated that in any event pending any change it its policies it would continue to focus its “indecency enforcement resources on egregious cases”. To date, the FCC continues to struggling with what is indecency.

The most famous indecency standard of “I know it when I see it”, was penned in exasperation by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 to describe his threshold test for obscenity (rather than indecency) in Jacobellis v. Ohio. But the standard

clearly is insufficient when it comes to assessing on-air content that could cost a radio station tens of thousands of dollars. To say that the FCC’s indecency policies and the application of those policies throughout the years has been mercurial is an understatement.
So, what are the arguments for and against the radio station that broadcast the Head Coach’s energetic statement that unfortunately contained the “F-word”?   Does that word even describe a sexual function when it is used as a derisive adjective in common speech?

If a complaint is filed at the FCC in this most recent incident, the station can argue that it was a fleeting use of the prohibited word in live coverage of a newsworthy event with no intent to imply a sexual function and was, in any event, outside the control of the radio station. But recall what the FCC would have done with Cher’s similar outburst on the 2002 Billboard’s Music Awards Show but for the Supreme Court holding that the FCC had not given proper notice of its new policy.

Despite the changes in our society and the public’s use of some four letter words to describe anything but a sexual activity, the bottom line is that the FCC’s indecency policies have not changed.   The F-word being broadcast on radio could result in an FCC notice of John Garziglia - Radioapparent liability with the assessment of a substantial fine.

John Garziglia is a communications attorney at Womble Bond Dickinson and can be reached at (202) 857-4455 or [email protected]


  1. Comparing the f-bomb to the likes of murder trial convictions and police officers beating some one up, or any of the other items mentioned above, is like comparing apples to oranges. Not the same. Why should I have to tolerate profane language on the radio, Television, or in public, just because people have no respect for others or themselves, or to lazy to use their own English language properly. There are many, many words in our English language to describe how we feel other than the f-bomb or other profane words. Whatever happened to manners? Many of the problems we have in our society stem from the fact that we we have become too lenient, lax, and accepting of improper behavior, whether it be language, or how people act in public. Like the two women in Amarillo, Texas who had a knock down drag out in the Bed, Bath, and Beyond, over a Dallas Cowboy’s Throw. Calling each other profane names and knocking down merchandise, besides making fools of themselves in front of all the Christmas shoppers. No, there is only one person who is perfect, but we should have high expectations of ourselves and others. We are educated, intelligent, human beings, and have language. That’s what separates us from the animals, who live by instinct. So, let’s act like it!

  2. From here:
    How about and instead, broadcasters be held accountable for the LIES that are told by political opportunists, vested interests, advertisers, talk-show hosts and various other conspiracy theorists who spout their bile without having to account for their statements?

    By comparison, dropping the occasional F-bomb, whether accidental or intentionally, pales when the priority needs to be about when to call “bullshit” – and to say so…. explicity.

  3. I wonder if it is well overdue for the world to just get over the F-word. Since the days of Pacifica airing George Carlin’s routine that word has become as generic an expletive as are “damn” and “hell” and in the absence of any sexual connotation there really is no reason for censure.

    This is a good example, and Dave Sharpe is right on the mark with his comment on unrealistic expectations. We live in an era where that word, used in common conversation, doesn’t raise an eyebrow most of the time. Shouldn’t broadcasting reflect normal use of language?

  4. The thing that gets me is how such a trivial thing is being debated about like some murder trial conviction. Kinda like today’s cops beating the crap out of someone for a minor traffic violation. Seems all forms of so called law enforcement must not have enough to keep them busy these days. In all forms of communications if mishaps cannot yet be tolerated then why have it? If I remember right this is Earth, not Heaven. Nothing here is perfect like God. I think sometimes the standards for human beings are being placed way too high for expectations.


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