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2.7: Print versus Cable, Broadcast and Internet

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    Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo (1974)

    418 U.S. 241 (1974)

    Vote: 9-0
    Decision: Reversed
    Majority: Burger joined by Brennan, Douglas, White, Stewart, Blackmun, Marshall, Powell, Rehnquist
    Concurrence: Brennan, joined by Rehnquist
    Concurrence: White

    CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE [UNANIMOUS] COURT.

    The issue in this case is whether a state statute granting a political candidate a right to equal space to reply to criticism and attacks on his record by a newspaper violates the guarantees of a free press.

    In the fall of 1972, appellee … was a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives. On September 20, 1972, and again on September 29, 1972, appellant printed editorials critical of appellee’s candidacy. In response to these editorials, appellee demanded that appellant print verbatim his replies … Appellant declined to print the appellee’s replies, and appellee brought suit … seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and actual and punitive damages in excess of $5,000. The action was premised on Florida Statute §104.38 (1973), a “right of reply” statute which provides that if a candidate for nomination or election is assailed regarding his personal character or official record by any newspaper, the candidate has the right to demand that the newspaper print, free of cost to the candidate, any reply the candidate may make to the newspaper’s charges. The reply must appear in as conspicuous a place and in the same kind of type as the charges which prompted the reply, provided it does not take up more space than the charges. Failure to comply with the statute constitutes a first-degree misdemeanor. Appellant sought a declaration that §104.38 was unconstitutional. After an emergency hearing requested by appellee, the Circuit Court denied injunctive relief because, absent special circumstances, no injunction could properly issue against the commission of a crime and held that 104.38 was unconstitutional as an infringement on the freedom of the press under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Circuit Court concluded that dictating what a newspaper must print was no different from dictating what it must not print. The Circuit Judge viewed the statute’s vagueness as serving “to restrict and stifle protected expression …

    On direct appeal, the Florida Supreme Court reversed, holding that 104.38 did not violate constitutional guarantees. It held that free speech was enhanced and not abridged by the Florida right-of-reply statute, which in that court’s view, furthered the “broad societal interest in the free flow of information to the public.” It also held that the statute is not impermissibly vague; the statute informs “those who are subject to it as to what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties.” Civil remedies, including damages, were held to be available under this statute; the case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings not inconsistent with the Florida Supreme Court’s opinion. We postponed consideration of the question of jurisdiction to the hearing of the case on the merits.

    The challenged statute creates a right to reply to press criticism of a candidate for nomination or election. The statute was enacted in 1913, and this is only the second recorded case decided under its provisions. Appellant contends the statute is void on its face because it purports to regulate the content of a newspaper in violation of the First Amendment. Alternatively it is urged that the statute is void for vagueness since no editor could know exactly what words would call the statute into operation. It is also contended that the statute fails to distinguish between critical comment which is, and which is not defamatory.

    The appellee and supporting advocates of an enforceable right of access to the press vigorously argue that government has an obligation to ensure that a wide variety of views reach the public … It is urged that at the time the First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified … the press was broadly representative of the people it was serving. While many of the newspapers were intensely partisan and narrow in their views, the press collectively presented a broad range of opinions to readers. Entry into publishing was inexpensive; pamphlets and books provided meaningful alternatives to the organized press for the expression of unpopular ideas and often treated events and expressed views not covered by conventional newspapers. A true marketplace of ideas existed in which there was relatively easy access to the channels of communication.

    Access advocates submit that, although newspapers of the present are superficially similar to those of 1791, the press of today is in reality very different from that known in the early years of our national existence. In the past half century, a communications revolution has seen the introduction of radio and television into our lives, the promise of a global community through the use of communications satellites, and the specter of a “wired” nation by means of an expanding cable television network with two-way capabilities. The printed press, it is said, has not escaped the effects of this revolution. Newspapers have become big business and there are far fewer of them to serve a larger literate population. Chains of newspapers, national newspapers, national wire and news services, and one-newspaper towns, are the dominant features of a press that has become noncompetitive and enormously powerful and influential in its capacity to manipulate popular opinion and change the course of events. Major metropolitan newspapers have collaborated to establish news services national in scope. Such national news organizations provide syndicated “interpretive reporting” as well as syndicated features and commentary, all of which can serve as part of the new school of “advocacy journalism.”

    The elimination of competing newspapers in most of our large cities, and the concentration of control of media that results from the only newspaper’s being owned by the same interests which own a television station and a radio station, are important components of this trend toward concentration of control of outlets to inform the public. The result of these vast changes has been to place in a few hands the power to inform the American people and shape public opinion. Much of the editorial opinion and commentary that is printed is that of syndicated columnists distributed nationwide and, as a result, we are told, on national and world issues there tends to be a homogeneity of editorial opinion, commentary, and interpretive analysis. The abuses of bias and manipulative reportage are, likewise, said to be the result of the vast accumulations of unreviewable power in the modern media empires. In effect, it is claimed, the public has lost any ability to respond or to contribute in a meaningful way to the debate on issues. The monopoly of the means of communication allows for little or no critical analysis of the media except in professional journals of very limited readership. * * *

    The obvious solution, which was available to dissidents at an earlier time when entry into publishing was relatively inexpensive, today would be to have additional newspapers. But the same economic factors which have caused the disappearance of vast numbers of metropolitan newspapers, have made entry into the marketplace of ideas served by the print media almost impossible. It is urged that the claim of newspapers to be “surrogates for the public” carries with it a concomitant fiduciary obligation to account for that stewardship. From this premise it is reasoned that the only effective way to insure fairness and accuracy and to provide for some accountability is for government to take affirmative action. The First Amendment interest of the public in being informed is said to be in peril because the “marketplace of ideas” is today a monopoly controlled by the owners of the market. Proponents of enforced access to the press take comfort from language in several of this Court’s decisions which suggests that the First Amendment acts as a sword as well as a shield, that it imposes obligations on the owners of the press in addition to protecting the press from government regulation. * * *

    However much validity may be found in these arguments, at each point the implementation of a remedy such as an enforceable right of access necessarily calls for some mechanism, either governmental or consensual. If it is governmental coercion, this at once brings about a confrontation with the express provisions of the First Amendment and the judicial gloss on that Amendment developed over the years. * * * We see that * * * the Court has expressed sensitivity as to whether a restriction or requirement constituted the compulsion exerted by government on a newspaper to print that which it would not otherwise print. The clear implication has been that any such a compulsion to publish that which “‘reason’ tells them should not be published” is unconstitutional. A responsible press is an undoubtedly desirable goal, but press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution and like many other virtues it cannot be legislated.

    Appellee’s argument that the Florida statute does not amount to a restriction of appellant’s right to speak because “the statute in question here has not prevented the Miami Herald from saying anything it wished” begs the core question. Compelling editors or publishers to publish that which “`reason’ tells them should not be published” is what is at issue in this case. The Florida statute operates as a command in the same sense as a statute or regulation forbidding appellant to publish specified matter. Governmental restraint on publishing need not fall into familiar or traditional patterns to be subject to constitutional limitations on governmental powers. Grosjean v. American Press Co. (1936). The Florida statute exacts a penalty on the basis of the content of a newspaper. The first phase of the penalty resulting from the compelled printing of a reply is exacted in terms of the cost in printing and composing time and materials and in taking up space that could be devoted to other material the newspaper may have preferred to print. It is correct, as appellee contends, that a newspaper is not subject to the finite technological limitations of time that confront a broadcaster but it is not correct to say that, as an economic reality, a newspaper can proceed to infinite expansion of its column space to accommodate the replies that a government agency determines or a statute commands the readers should have available.

    Faced with the penalties that would accrue to any newspaper that published news or commentary arguably within the reach of the right-of-access statute, editors might well conclude that the safe course is to avoid controversy. Therefore, under the operation of the Florida statute, political and electoral coverage would be blunted or reduced. Government-enforced right of access inescapably “dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate,” New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). * * *

    Even if a newspaper would face no additional costs to comply with a compulsory access law and would not be forced to forgo publication of news or opinion by the inclusion of a reply, the Florida statute fails to clear the barriers of the First Amendment because of its intrusion into the function of editors. A newspaper is more than a passive receptacle or conduit for news, comment, and advertising. The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials -whether fair or unfair -constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment. It has yet to be demonstrated how governmental regulation of this crucial process can be exercised consistent with First Amendment guarantees of a free press as they have evolved to this time.

    Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida is reversed.

    It is so ordered.

    BRENNAN, WITH WHOM REHNQUIST JOINS, CONCURRING.

    I join the Court’s opinion which, as I understand it, addresses only “right of reply” statutes and implies no view upon the constitutionality of “retraction” statutes affording plaintiffs able to prove defamatory falsehoods a statutory action to require publication of a retraction.


    Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969)

    395 U.S. 367 (1969)

    Vote: 8-0
    Decision: Reversed
    Majority: White, joined by Warren, Black, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, Marshal
    Not participating: Douglas

    MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

    The Federal Communications Commission has for many years imposed on radio and television broadcasters the requirement that discussion of public issues be presented on broadcast stations, and that each side of those issues must be given fair coverage. This is known as the fairness doctrine, which originated very early. In the history of broadcasting and has maintained its present outlines for some time. It is an obligation whose content has been defined in a long series of FCC rulings in particular cases, and which is distinct from the statutory requirement of § 315 of the Communications Act’ that equal time be allotted all qualified candidates for public office. Two aspects of the fairness doctrine, relating to personal attacks in the context of controversial public issues and to political editorializing, were codified more precisely in the form of FCC regulations in 1967. The two cases before us now, which were decided separately below, challenge the constitutional and statutory bases of the doctrine and component rules. Red Lion involves the application of the fairness doctrine to a particular broadcast, and RTNDA arises as an action to review the FCC’s 1967 promulgation of the personal attack and political editorializing regulations, which were laid down after the Red Lion litigation had begun.

    The Red Lion Broadcasting Company is licensed to operate a Pennsylvania radio station, WGCB. On November 27, 1964, WGCB carried a 15-minute broadcast by the Reverend Billy James Hargis as part of a “Christian’ Crusade” series. A hook by Fred J. Cook entitled “Gold-water-Extremist on the Right” was discussed by Hargis,. who said that Cook had been fired by a newspaper for making false charges against city officials; that Cook had then worked for a Communist-affiliated publication; that he had defended Alger Hiss and attacked J. Edgar Hoover and the Central Intelligence Agency; and that he had now written a “book to smear and destroy Barry Goldwater.” When Cook heard of the broadcast he concluded that he had been personally attacked and demanded free reply time, which the station refused. After an exchange of letters among Cook, Red Lion, and the FCC, the FCC declared that the Hargis broadcast constituted a personal attack on Cook; that Red Lion had failed to meet its obligation under the fairness doctrine as expressed in Times-Mirror Broadcasting Co., 24 P & F Radio Reg. 404 (1962), to send a tape, transcript, or summary of the broadcast to Cook and offer him reply time; and that the station must provide reply time whether or not Cook would pay for it …

    Believing that the specific application of the fairness doctrine in Red Lion, and the promulgation of, the regulations in RTNDA, are both authorized by Congress and enhance rather than abridge the freedoms of speech and press protected by the First Amendment, we hold them valid and constitutional, reversing the judgment below in RTNDA and affirming the judgment below in Red Lion.

    The history of the emergence of the fairness doctrine and of the related legislation shows that the Commission’s action in the Red Lion case did not exceed its authority, and that in adopting the new regulations the Commission was implementing congressional policy rather than embarking on a frolic of its own.

    Before 1927, the allocation of frequencies was left entirely to the private sector, and the result was chaos. It quickly became apparent that broadcast frequencies constituted a scarce resource whose use could be regulated and rationalized only by the Government. Without government control, the medium would be of little use because of the cacaphony of competing voices, none of which could be clearly and predictably heard to allocate frequencies among competing applicants in a manner responsive to the public “convenience, interest, or necessity.”

    Very shortly thereafter the Commission expressed its view that the “public interest requires ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views, and the commission believes that the principle applies … to all discussions of issues of importance to the public.” Great Lakes Broadcasting Co., 3 F.R.C.Ann.Rep. 32, 33 (1929), rev’d on other grounds, 59 App.D.C.197, 37 F.2d 993, cert. dismissed, 281 U.S. 706 (1930) … After an extended period during which the licensee was obliged not only to cover and to cover fairly the views of others but also to refrain from expressing his own personal views, Mayflower Broadcasting Corp., 8 F.C.C. 333 (1940), the latter limitation on the licensee was abandoned, and the doctrine developed into its present form.

    There is a twofold duty laid down by the FCC’s decisions and described by the 1949 Report on Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees, 13 F.C.C. 1246 (1949). The broadcaster must give adequate coverage to public issues, United Broadcasting Co., 10 F.C.C. 515 (1945), and coverage must be fair in that it accurately reflects the opposing views. New Broadcasting Co., 6 P & F Radio Reg. 258 (1950). This must be done at the broadcaster’s own expense if sponsorship is unavailable. Cullman Broadcasting Co., 25 P & F Radio Reg. 895 (1963).

    Moreover, the duty must be met by programming obtained at the licensee’s own initiative if available from no other source …

    When a personal attack has been made on a figure involved in a public issue, both the doctrine of cases such as Red Lion and Times-Mirror Broadcasting Co., 24 P & F Radio Reg. 404 (1962), and also the 1967 regulations at issue in RTNDA require that the individual attacked himself be offered an opportunity to respond. Likewise, where one candidate is endorsed in a political editorial, the other candidates must themselves be offered reply time to use personally or through a spokesman. These obligations differ from the general fairness requirement that issues be presented, and presented with coverage of competing views, in that the broadcaster does not have the option of presenting the attacked party’s side himself or choosing a third party to represent that side …

    The fairness doctrine finds specific recognition in statutory form, is in part modeled on explicit statutory provisions relating to political candidates, and is approvingly reflected in legislative history … Thirty years of consistent administrative construction left undisturbed by Congress until 1959, when that construction was expressly accepted, reinforce the natural conclusion that the public interest language of the Act authorized the Commission to require licensees to use their stations for discussion of public issues, and that the FCC is free to implement this requirement by reasonable rules and regulations which fall short of abridgment of the freedom of speech and press, and of the censorship proscribed by § 326 of the Act …

    It is true that the personal attack aspect of the fairness doctrine was not actually adjudicated until after 1959, so that Congress then did not have those rules specifically before it. However, the obligation to offer time to reply to a personal attack was presaged by the FCC’s 1949 Report on Editorializing, which the FCC views as the principal summary of its ratio decidendi in cases in this area:

    “In determining whether to honor specific requests for time, the station will inevitably be confronted with such questions as … whether there may not be other available groups or individuals who might be more appropriate spokesmen for the particular
    point of view than the person making the request. The latter’s personal involvement in the controversy may also be a factor which must be considered, for elementary considerations of fairness may dictate that time be allocated to a person or group which has been specifically attacked over the station, where otherwise no such obligation would exist.” 13 F.C.C. at 1251-1252.

    When the Congress ratified the FCC’s implication of a fairness doctrine in 1959 it did not, of course, approve every past decision or pronouncement by the Commission on this subject, or give it a completely free hand for the future. The statutory authority does not go so far. But we cannot say that when a station publishes personal attacks or endorses political candidates, it is a misconstruction of the public interest standard to require the station to offer time for a response rather than to leave the response entirely within the control of the station which has attacked either the candidacies or the men who wish to reply in their own defense. When a broadcaster grants time to a political candidate, Congress itself requires that equal time be offered to his opponents. It would exceed our competence to hold that the Commission is unauthorized by the statute to employ a similar device where personal attacks or political editorials are broadcast by a radio or television station …

    The broadcasters challenge the fairness doctrine and its specific manifestations in the personal attack and political editorial rules on conventional First Amendment grounds, alleging that the rules abridge their freedom of speech and press. Their contention is that the First Amendment protects their desire to use their allotted frequencies continuously to broadcast whatever they
    choose, and to exclude whomever they choose from ever using that frequency. No man may be prevented from saying or publishing what he thinks, or from refusing in his speech or other utterances to give equal weight to the views of his opponents. This right, they say, applies equally to broadcasters …

    When two people converse face to face, both should not speak at once if either is to be clearly understood. But the range of the human voice is so limited that there could be meaningful communications if half the people in the United States were talking and the other half listening. Just as clearly, half the people might publish and the other half read. But the reach of radio signals is incomparably greater than the range of the human voice and the problem of interference is a massive reality. The lack of know-how and equipment may keep many from the air, but only a tiny fraction of those with resources and intelligence can hope to communicate by radio at the same time if intelligible communication is to be had, even if the entire radio spectrum is utilized in the present state of commercially acceptable technology …

    It does not violate the First Amendment to treat licensees given the privilege of using scarce radio frequencies as proxies for the entire community, obligated to give suitable time and attention to matters of great public concern. To condition the granting or renewal of licenses on a willingness to present representative community views on controversial issues is consistent with the ends and purposes of those constitutional provisions forbidding the abridgment of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Congress need not stand idly by and permit those with licenses to ignore the problems which beset the people or to exclude from the airways anything but their own views of fundamental questions. The statute, long administrative practice, and cases are to this effect …

    In view of the scarcity of broadcast frequencies, the Government’s role in allocating those frequencies, and the legitimate claims of those unable without governmental assistance to gain access to those frequencies for expression of their views, we hold the regulations and ruling at issue here are both authorized by statute and constitutional.” The judgment of the Court of Appeals in Red Lion is affirmed and that in RTNDA reversed and the causes remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

    It is so ordered.


    FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978)

    438 U.S. 726 (1978)

    Vote: 5-4
    Decision: Reversed
    Majority: Stevens, joined by Burger, Blackmun, Rehnquist, Powell
    Concurrence: Powell
    Concurrence: Blackmun (in part)
    Dissent: Blackmun (in part), joined by Marshall, Stewart, White

    STEVENS, J., announced the Court’s judgment and delivered an opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I-III and IV-C, in which BURGER, C. J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, and in all but Parts IV-A and V-B of which BLACKMUN and POWELL, JJ., joined, and an opinion as to Parts IV-A and V-B, in which BURGER, C. J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined.

    This case requires that we decide whether the Federal Communications Commission has any power to regulate a radio broadcast that is indecent but not obscene.

    A satiric humorist named George Carlin recorded a 12-minute monologue entitled “Filthy Words” before a live audience in a California theater. He began by referring to his thoughts about “the words you couldn’t say on the public, ah, airwaves, um, the ones you definitely wouldn’t say, ever.” He proceeded to list those words and repeat them over and over again in a variety of colloquialisms. The transcript of the recording, which is appended to this opinion, indicates frequent laughter from the audience.

    At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, October 30, 1973, a New York radio station, owned by respondent Pacifica Foundation, broadcast the “Filthy Words” monologue. A few weeks later a man, who stated that he had heard the broadcast while driving with his young son, wrote a letter complaining to the Commission. He stated that, although he could perhaps understand the “record’s being sold for private use, I certainly cannot understand the broadcast of same over the air that, supposedly, you control.”

    The complaint was forwarded to the station for comment. In its response, Pacifica explained that the monologue had been played during a program about contemporary society’s attitude toward language and that, immediately before its broadcast, listeners had been advised that it included “sensitive language which might be regarded as offensive to some.” Pacifica characterized George Carlin as “a significant social satirist” who “like Twain and Sahl before him, examines the language of ordinary people. … Carlin is not mouthing obscenities, he is merely using words to satirize as harmless and essentially silly our attitudes towards those words.” Pacifica stated that it was not aware of any other complaints about the broadcast …

    The Commission characterized the language used in the Carlin monologue as “patently offensive,” though not necessarily obscene, and expressed the opinion that it should be regulated by principles analogous to those found in the law of nuisance, where the “law generally speaks to channeling behavior more than actually prohibiting it. … [T]he concept of ‘indecent’ is intimately connected with the exposure of children to language that describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities and organs, at times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.” 56 F.C.C.2d at 98.

    Applying these considerations to the language used in the monologue as broadcast by respondent, the Commission concluded that certain words depicted sexual and excretory activities in a patently offensive manner, noted that they “were broadcast at a time when children were undoubtedly in the audience (i.e., in the early afternoon),” and that the prerecorded language, with these offensive words “repeated over and over,” was “deliberately broadcast.” Id., at 99. In summary, the Commission stated: “We therefore hold that the language as broadcast was indecent and prohibited by 18 U. S. C. [§] 1464 …”

    The general statements in the Commission’s memorandum opinion do not change the character of its order. Its action was an adjudication under 5 U. S. C. § 554 (e) (1976 ed.); it did not purport to engage in formal rulemaking or in the promulgation of any regulations. The order “was issued in a specific factual context”; questions concerning possible action in other contexts were expressly reserved for the future. The specific holding was carefully confined to the monologue “as broadcast …”

    The relevant statutory questions are whether the Commission’s action is forbidden “censorship” within the meaning of 47 U. S. C. § 326 and whether speech that concededly is not obscene may be restricted as “indecent” under the authority of 18 U. S. C. § 1464 (1976 ed.). The questions are not unrelated, for the two statutory provisions have a common origin …

    Entirely apart from the fact that the subsequent review of program content is not the sort of censorship at which the statute was directed, its history makes it perfectly clear that it was not intended to limit the Commission’s power to regulate the broadcast of obscene, indecent, or profane language. A single section of the 1927 Act is the source of both the anticensorship provision and the Commission’s authority to impose sanctions for the broadcast of indecent or obscene language. Quite plainly, Congress intended to give meaning to both provisions. Respect for that intent requires that the censorship language be read as inapplicable to the prohibition on broadcasting obscene, indecent, or profane language.

    There is nothing in the legislative history to contradict this conclusion. The provision was discussed only in generalities when it was first enacted …

    We conclude, therefore, that § 326 does not limit the Commission’s authority to impose sanctions on licensees who engage in obscene, indecent, or profane broadcasting …

    The only other statutory question presented by this case is whether the afternoon broadcast of the “Filthy Words” monologue was indecent within the meaning of § 1464.13 Even that question is narrowly confined by the arguments of the parties …

    The plain language of the statute does not support Pacifica’s argument. The words “obscene, indecent, or profane” are written in the disjunctive, implying that each has a separate meaning. Prurient appeal is an element of the obscene, but the normal definition of “indecent” merely refers to nonconformance with accepted standards of morality.’ …

    Because neither our prior decisions nor the language or history of § 1464 supports the conclusion that prurient appeal is an essential component of indecent language, we reject Pacifica’s construction of the statute. When that construction is put to one side, there is no basis for disagreeing with the Commission’s conclusion that indecent language was used in this broadcast …

    Pacifica makes two constitutional attacks on the Commission’s order. First, it argues that the Commission’s construction of the statutory language broadly encompasses so much constitutionally protected speech that reversal is required even if Pacifica’s broadcast of the “Filthy Words” monologue is not itself protected by the First Amendment. Second, Pacifica argues that inasmuch as the recording is not obscene, the Constitution forbids any abridgment of the right to broadcast it on the radio.

    The first argument fails because our review is limited to the question whether the Commission has the authority to proscribe this particular broadcast. As the Commission itself emphasized, its order was “issued in a specific factual context.” 59 F. C. C. 2d, at 893. That approach is appropriate for courts as well as the Commission when regulation of indecency is at stake, for indecency is largely a function of context-it cannot be adequately judged in the abstract …

    When the issue is narrowed to the facts of this case, the question is whether the First Amendment denies government any power to restrict the public broadcast of indecent language in any circumstances. For if the government has any such power, this was an appropriate occasion for its exercise …

    The question in this case is whether a broadcast of patently offensive words dealing with sex and excretion may be regulated because of its content.” Obscene materials have been denied the protection of the First Amendment because their content is so offensive to contemporary moral standards. Roth v. United States (1957). But the fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection. For it is a central tenet of the First Amendment that the government must remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas. If there were any reason to believe that the Commission’s characterization of the Carlin monologue as offensive could be traced to its political content–or even to the fact that it satirized contemporary attitudes about four-letter words ‘ ___ First Amendment protection might be required. But that is simply not this case. These words offend for the same reasons that obscenity offends …

    Although these words ordinarily lack literary, political, or scientific value, they are not entirely outside the protection of the First Amendment. Some uses of even the most offensive words are unquestionably protected. Indeed, we may assume, arguendo, that this monologue would be protected in other contexts. Nonetheless, the constitutional protection accorded to a communication containing such patently offensive sexual and excretory language need not be the same in every context. It is a characteristic of speech such as this that both its capacity to offend and its “social value,” to use Mr. Justice Murphy’s term, vary with the circumstances. Words that are commonplace in one setting are shocking in another. To paraphrase Mr. Justice Harlan, one occasion’s lyric is another’s vulgarity. Cohen v. California, (1971) …

    The reasons for these distinctions are complex, but two have relevance to the present case. First, the broadcast media have established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans. Patently offensive, indecent material presented over the airwaves confronts the citizen, not only in public, but also in the privacy of the home, where the individual’s right to be left alone plainly outweighs the First Amendment rights of an intruder. Rowan v. Post Office Dept (1970). Because the broadcast audience is constantly tuning in and out, prior warnings cannot completely protect the listener or viewer from unexpected program content. To say that one may avoid further offense by turning off the radio when he hears indecent language is like saying that the remedy for an assault is to run away after the first blow. One may hang up on an indecent phone call, but that option does not give the caller a constitutional immunity or avoid a harm that has already taken place.

    Second, broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read. Although Cohen’s written message might have been incomprehensible to a first grader, Pacifica’s broadcast could have enlarged a child’s vocabulary in an instant. Other forms of offensive expression may be withheld from the young without restricting the expression at its source. Bookstores and motion picture theaters, for example, may be prohibited from making indecent material available to children …

    The Commission’s decision rested entirely on a nuisance rationale under which context is all-important. The concept requires consideration of a host of variables. The time of day was emphasized by the Commission. The content of the program in which the language is used will also affect the composition of the audience, and differences between radio, television, and perhaps closed-circuit transmissions, may also be relevant. As Mr. Justice Sutherland wrote, a “nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place, like a pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard.” Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. (1926). We simply hold that when the Commission finds that a pig has entered the parlor, the exercise of its regulatory power does not depend on proof that the pig is obscene.

    The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

    It is so ordered.

    Note: https://artsandculture.google.com/entity/seven-dirty-words/m01pxq4?hl=en

    Note: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/05/the-7-dirty-words-turn-40-but-theyre-still-dirty/257374/

    Note: https://www.biography.com/news/george-carlin-seven-words-supreme-court


    Turner Broadcasting System, Inc v. FCC (1994)

    512 U.S. 622 (1994)

    Vote: 9-0
    Decision: Reversed
    Majority: Kennedy, joined by unanimous (Part I); Rehnquist, Blackmun, O’Connor, Scalia, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg (Parts II–A and II–B); Rehnquist, Blackmun, Stevens, Souter (Parts II–C, II–D, and III–A)
    Concurrence: Kennedy (Part III–B), joined by Rehnquist, Blackmun, Souter
    Concurrence: J. Blackmun
    Concurrence: J. Stevens (in part)
    Concurrence/ Dissent: O’Connor, joined by Scalia, Ginsburg; Thomas (Parts I and III) and Concurrence/ Dissent: Ginsburg

    JUSTICE KENNEDY announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part III-B.

    Sections 4 and 5 of the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 require cable television systems to devote a portion of their channels to the transmission of local broadcast television stations. This case presents the question whether these provisions abridge the freedom of speech or of the press, in violation of the First Amendment …

    On October 5, 1992, Congress overrode a Presidential veto to enact the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, Pub. L. 102-385, 106 Stat. 1460 (1992 Cable Act or Act). Among other things, the Act subjects the cable industry to rate regulation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and by municipal franchising authorities; prohibits municipalities from awarding exclusive franchises to cable operators; imposes various restrictions on cable programmers that are affiliated with cable operators; and directs the FCC to develop and promulgate regulations imposing minimum technical standards for cable operators. At issue in this case is the constitutionality of the so-called must-carry provisions, contained in §§ 4 and 5 of the Act, which require cable operators to carry the signals of a specified number of local broadcast television stations.

    Section 4 requires carriage of “local commercial television stations,” defined to include all full power television broadcasters, other than those qualifying as “noncommercial educational” stations under § 5, that operate within the same television market as the cable system …

    Section 5 of the Act imposes similar requirements regarding the carriage of local public broadcast television stations, referred to in the Act as local “noncommercial educational television stations,” …

    Taken together, therefore, §§4 and 5 subject all but the smallest cable systems nationwide to must-carry obligations, and confer must-carry privileges on all full power broadcasters operating within the same television market as a qualified cable system …

    In particular, Congress found that over 60 percent of the households with television sets subscribe to cable, § 2(a)(3), and for these households cable has replaced over-the-air broadcast television as the primary provider of video programming, § 2(a)(17) …

    In addition, Congress concluded that due to “local franchising requirements and the extraordinary expense of constructing more than one cable television system to serve a particular geographic area,” the overwhelming majority of cable operators exercise a monopoly over cable service …

    According to Congress, this market position gives cable operators the power and the incentive to harm broadcast competitors. The power derives from the cable operator’s ability, as owner of the transmission facility, to “terminate the retransmission of the broadcast signal, refuse to carry new signals, or reposition a broadcast signal to a disadvantageous channel position.” …

    Soon after the Act became law, appellants filed these five consolidated actions in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against the United States and the Federal Communications Commission (hereinafter referred to collectively as the Government), challenging the constitutionality of the must-carry provisions …

    There can be no disagreement on an initial premise: Cable programmers and cable operators engage in and transmit speech, and they are entitled to the protection of the speech and press provisions of the First Amendment …

    Nevertheless, because not every interference with speech triggers the same degree of scrutiny under the First Amendment, we must decide at the outset the level of scrutiny applicable to the must-carry provisions …

    We address first the Government’s contention that regulation of cable television should be analyzed under the same First Amendment standard that applies to regulation of broadcast television. It is true that our cases have permitted more intrusive regulation of broadcast speakers than of speakers in other media. Compare Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969) (television), and National Broadcasting Co. v. United States, (1943) (radio), with Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, (1974) (print), and Riley v. National Federation of Blind of N. c., Inc., (1988) (personal solicitation). But the rationale for applying a less rigorous standard of First Amendment scrutiny to broadcast regulation, whatever its validity in the cases elaborating it, does not apply in the context of cable regulation.

    The justification for our distinct approach to broadcast regulation rests upon the unique physical limitations of the broadcast medium. As a general matter, there are more would-be broadcasters than frequencies available in the electromagnetic spectrum. And if two broadcasters were to attempt to transmit over the same frequency in the same locale, they would interfere with one another’s signals, so that neither could be heard at all. The scarcity of broadcast frequencies thus required the establishment of some regulatory mechanism to divide the electromagnetic spectrum and assign specific frequencies to particular broadcasters.

    Although the Government acknowledges the substantial technological differences between broadcast and cable … It asserts that the foundation of our broadcast jurisprudence is not the physical limitations of the electro-magnetic spectrum, but rather the “market dysfunction” that characterizes the broadcast market. Because the cable market is beset by a similar dysfunction, the Government maintains, the Red Lion standard of review should also apply to cable. While we agree that the cable market suffers certain structural impediments, the Government’s argument is flawed in two respects. First, as discussed above, the special physical characteristics of broadcast transmission, not the economic characteristics of the broadcast market, are what underlies our broadcast jurisprudence … Second, the mere assertion of dysfunction or failure in a speech market, without more, is not sufficient to shield a speech regulation from the First Amendment standards applicable to nonbroadcast media …

    By a related course of reasoning, the Government and some appellees maintain that the must-carry provisions are nothing more than industry-specific antitrust legislation, and thus warrant rational-basis scrutiny under this Court’s “precedents governing legislative efforts to correct market failure in a market whose commodity is speech,” such as Associated Press v. United States (1945) and Lorain Journal Co. v. United States (1951). This contention is unavailing … But while the enforcement of a generally applicable law may or may not be subject to heightened scrutiny under the First Amendment, subject to at least some degree of heightened First Amendment scrutiny …

    At the heart of the First Amendment lies the principle that each person should decide for himself or herself the ideas and beliefs deserving of expression, consideration, and adherence. Our political system and cultural life rest upon this ideal …

    For these reasons, the First Amendment, subject only to narrow and well-understood exceptions, does not countenance governmental control over the content of messages expressed by private individuals …

    Our precedents thus apply the most exacting scrutiny to regulations that suppress, disadvantage, or impose differential burdens upon speech because of its content …

    Insofar as they pertain to the carriage of full-power broadcasters, the must-carry rules, on their face, impose burdens and confer benefits without reference to the content of speech. Although the provisions interfere with cable operators’ editorial discretion by compelling them to offer carriage to a certain minimum number of broadcast stations, the extent of the interference does not depend upon the content of the cable operators’ programming. The rules impose obligations upon all operators, save those with fewer than 300 subscribers, regardless of the programs or stations they now offer or have offered in the past. Nothing in the Act imposes a restriction, penalty, or burden by reason of the views, programs, or stations the cable operator has selected or will select. The number of channels a cable operator must set aside depends only on the operator’s channel capacity …

    It is true that the must-carry provisions distinguish between speakers in the television programming market. But they do so based only upon the manner in which speakers transmit their messages to viewers, and not upon the messages they carry: Broadcasters, which transmit over the airwaves, are favored, while cable programmers, which do not, are disfavored. Cable operators, too, are burdened by the carriage obligations, but only because they control access to the cable conduit. So long as they are not a subtle means of exercising a content preference, speaker distinctions of this nature are not presumed invalid under the First Amendment …

    That the must-carry provisions, on their face, do not burden or benefit speech of a particular content does not end the inquiry. Our cases have recognized that even a regulation neutral on its face may be content based if its manifest purpose is to regulate speech because of the message it conveys. United States v. Eichman, (1990) …

    Appellants contend, in this regard, that the must-carry regulations are content based because Congress’ purpose in enacting them was to promote speech of a favored content. We do not agree. Our review of the Act and its various findings persuades us that Congress’ overriding objective in enacting must-carry was not to favor programming of a particular subject matter, viewpoint, or format, but rather to preserve access to free television programming for the 40 percent of Americans without cable …

    By preventing cable operators from refusing carriage to broadcast television stations, the must-carry rules ensure that broadcast television stations will retain a large enough potential audience to earn necessary advertising revenue-or, in the case of noncommercial broadcasters, sufficient viewer contributions, see § 2(a)(8)(B)-to maintain their continued operation. In so doing, the provisions are designed to guarantee the survival of a medium that has become a vital part of the Nation’s communication system, and to ensure that every individual with a television set can obtain access to free television programming …

    This overriding congressional purpose is unrelated to the content of expression disseminated by cable and broadcast speakers. Indeed, our precedents have held that “protecting noncable households from loss of regular television broadcasting service due to competition from cable systems,” is not only a permissible governmental justification, but an “important and substantial federal interest.” Capital Cities Cable Inc v. Crisp (1984) …

    In short, the must-carry provisions are not designed to favor or disadvantage speech of any particular content. Rather, they are meant to protect broadcast television from what Congress determined to be unfair competition by cable systems. In enacting the provisions, Congress sought to preserve the existing structure of the Nation’s broadcast television medium while permitting the concomitant expansion and development of cable television, and, in particular, to ensure that broadcast television remains available as a source of video programming for those without cable. Appellants’ ability to hypothesize a content-based purpose for these provisions rests on little more than speculation and does not cast doubt upon the content-neutral character of must-carry …

    The Government’s assertion that the must-carry rules are necessary to protect the viability of broadcast television rests on two essential propositions: (1) that unless cable operators are compelled to carry broadcast stations, significant numbers of broadcast stations will be refused carriage on cable systems; and (2) that the broadcast stations denied carriage will either deteriorate to a substantial degree or fail altogether.

    As support for the first proposition, the Government relies upon a 1988 FCC study showing, at a time when no must- carry rules were in effect, that approximately 20 percent of cable systems reported dropping or refusing carriage to one or more local broadcast stations on at least one occasion … The record does not indicate, however, the time frame within which these drops occurred, or how many of these stations were dropped for only a temporary period and then restored to carriage. The same FCC study indicates that about 23 percent of the cable operators reported shifting the channel positions of one or more local broadcast stations, and that, in most cases, the repositioning was done for “marketing” rather than “technical” reasons …

    The parties disagree about the significance of these statistics. But even if one accepts them as evidence that a large number of broadcast stations would be dropped or repositioned in the absence of must-carry, the Government must further demonstrate that broadcasters so affected would suffer financial difficulties as a result. Without a more substantial elaboration in the District Court of the predictive or historical evidence upon which Congress relied, or the introduction of some additional evidence to establish that the dropped or repositioned broadcasters would be at serious risk of financial difficulty, we cannot determine whether the threat to broadcast television is real enough to overcome the challenge to the provisions made by these appellants. We think it significant, for instance, that the parties have not presented any evidence that local broadcast stations have fallen into bankruptcy, turned in their broadcast licenses, curtailed their broadcast operations, or suffered a serious reduction in operating revenues as a result of their being dropped from, or otherwise disadvantaged by, cable systems …

    The paucity of evidence indicating that broadcast television is in jeopardy is not the only deficiency in this record. Also lacking are any findings concerning the actual effects of must-carry on the speech of cable operators and cable programmers-i.e., the extent to which cable operators will, in fact, be forced to make changes in their current or anticipated programming selections; the degree to which cable programmers will be dropped from cable systems to make room for local broadcasters; and the extent to which cable operators can satisfy their must-carry obligations by devoting previously unused channel capacity to the carriage of local broadcasters. The answers to these and perhaps other questions are critical to the narrow tailoring step of the O’Brien analysis, for unless we know the extent to which the must-carry provisions in fact interfere with protected speech, we cannot say whether they suppress “substantially more speech than … necessary” to ensure the viability of broadcast television.

    In sum, because there are genuine issues of material fact still to be resolved on this record, we hold that the District Court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the Government … Because of the unresolved factual questions, the importance of the issues to the broadcast and cable industries, and the conflicting conclusions that the parties contend are to be drawn from the statistics and other evidence presented, we think it necessary to permit the parties to develop a more thorough factual record, and to allow the District Court to resolve any factual disputes remaining, before passing upon the constitutional validity of the challenged provisions.

    The judgment below is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

    It is so ordered.


    United States et. al v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc. (2000)

    529 U.S. 803 (2000)

    Decision: 5-4
    Decision: Affirmed
    Majority: Kennedy, joined by Stevens, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg
    Concurrence: Stevens, joined by Thomas
    Dissent: Breyer, joined by Rehnquist, O’Connor, Scalia

    JUSTICE KENNEDY DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT.

    This case presents a challenge to § 505 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-104, 110 Stat. 136, 47 U. S. C. § 561 (1994 ed., Supp. III). Section 505 requires cable television operators who provide channels “primarily dedicated to sexually-oriented programming” either to “fully scramble or otherwise fully block” those channels or to limit their transmission to hours when children are unlikely to be viewing, set by administrative regulation as the time between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. 47 U. S. C. § 561(a) (1994 ed., Supp. III); 47 CFR § 76.227 (1999). Even before enactment of the statute, signal scrambling was already in use. Cable operators used scrambling in the regular course of business, so that only paying customers had access to certain programs. Scrambling could be imprecise, however; and either or both audio and visual portions of the scrambled programs might be heard or seen, a phenomenon known as “signal bleed.” The purpose of § 505 is to shield children from hearing or seeing images resulting from signal bleed.

    To comply with the statute, the majority of cable operators adopted the second, or “time channeling,” approach. The effect of the widespread adoption of time channeling was to eliminate altogether the transmission of the targeted programming outside the safe harbor period in affected cable service areas. In other words, for two-thirds of the day no household in those service areas could receive the programming, whether or not the household or the viewer wanted to do so.

    Appellee Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., challenged the statute as unnecessarily restrictive content-based legislation violative of the First Amendment. After a trial, a three-judge District Court concluded that a regime in which viewers could order signal blocking on a household-by household basis presented an effective, less restrictive alternative to § 505. 30 F. Supp. 2d 702, 719 (Del. 1998). Finding no error in this conclusion, we affirm.

    Playboy Entertainment Group owns and prepares programs for adult television networks, including Playboy Television and Spice. Playboy transmits its programming to cable television operators, who retransmit it to their subscribers, either through monthly subscriptions to premium channels or on a so-called “pay-per-view” basis. Cable operators transmit Playboy’s signal, like other premium channel signals, in scrambled form. The operators then provide

    paying subscribers with an “addressable converter,” a box placed on the home television set. The converter permits the viewer to see and hear the descrambled signal. It is conceded that almost all of Playboy’s programming consists of sexually explicit material as defined by the statute …

    When the statute became operative, most cable operators had “no practical choice but to curtail [the targeted] programming during the [regulated] sixteen hours or risk the penalties imposed … if any audio or video signal bleed occur[red] during [those] times.” 30 F. Supp. 2d, at 711. The majority of operators-“in one survey, 69%”-complied with § 505 by time channeling the targeted programmers. Ibid. Since “30 to 50% of all adult programming is viewed by households prior to 10 p.m.,” the result was a significant restriction of communication, with a corresponding reduction in Playboy’s revenues …

    Two essential points should be understood concerning the speech at issue here. First, we shall assume that many adults themselves would find the material highly offensive; and when we consider the further circumstance that the material comes unwanted into homes where children might see or hear it against parental wishes or consent, there are legitimate reasons for regulating it. Second, all parties bring the case to us on the premise that Playboy’s programming has First Amendment protection. As this case has been litigated, it is not alleged to be obscene; adults have a constitutional right to view it; the Government disclaims any interest in preventing children from seeing or hearing it with the consent of their parents; and Playboy has concomitant rights under the First Amendment to transmit it. These points are undisputed.

    The speech in question is defined by its content; and the statute which seeks to restrict it is content based. Section 505 applies only to channels primarily dedicated to “sexually explicit adult programming or other programming that is indecent.” The statute is unconcerned with signal bleed from any other channels. See 945 F. Supp., at 785 (“[Section 505] does not apply when signal bleed occurs on other premium channel networks, like HBO or the Disney Channel”). The overriding justification for the regulation is concern for the effect of the subject matter on young viewers. Section 505 is not “‘justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech.”‘ Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1989) …

    To prohibit this much speech is a significant restriction of communication between speakers and willing adult listeners, communication which enjoys First Amendment protection. It is of no moment that the statute does not impose a complete prohibition. The distinction between laws burdening and laws banning speech is but a matter of degree. The Government’s content-based burdens must satisfy the same rigorous scrutiny as its content-based bans …

    Since § 505 is a content-based speech restriction, it can stand only if it satisfies strict scrutiny. Sable Communications of Cal., Inc. v. FCC, (1989). If a statute regulates speech based on its content, it must be narrowly tailored to promote a compelling Government interest. Ibid. If a less restrictive alternative would serve the Government’s purpose, the legislature must use that alternative …

    The District Court concluded that a less restrictive alternative is available: §504, with adequate publicity. 30 F. Supp. 2d, at 719-720. No one disputes that § 504, which requires cable operators to block undesired channels at individual households upon request, is narrowly tailored to the Government’s goal of supporting parents who want those channels blocked. The question is whether § 504 can be effective.

    When a plausible, less restrictive alternative is offered to a content-based speech restriction, it is the Government’s obligation to prove that the alternative will be ineffective to achieve its goals. The Government has not met that burden here. In support of its position, the Government cites empirical evidence showing that § 504, as promulgated and implemented before trial, generated few requests for household-by-household blocking. Between March 1996 and May 1997, while the Government was enjoined from enforcing § 505, § 504 remained in operation. A survey of cable operators determined that fewer than 0.5% of cable subscribers requested full blocking during that time. The uncomfortable fact is the § 504 was the sole blocking regulation in effect for over a year; and the public greeted it with a collective yawn.

    … It is through speech that our convictions and beliefs are influenced, expressed, and tested. It is through speech that we bring those beliefs to bear on Government and on society. It is through speech that our personalities are formed and expressed. The citizen is entitled to seek out or reject certain ideas or influences without Government interference or control …

    It is rare that a regulation restricting speech because of its content will ever be permissible. Indeed, were we to give the Government the benefit of the doubt when it attempted to restrict speech, we would risk leaving regulations in place that sought to shape our unique personalities

    or to silence dissenting ideas. When First Amendment compliance is the point to be proved, the risk of non-persuasion operative in all trials-must rest with the Government, not with the citizen …

    The District Court’s thorough discussion exposes a central weakness in the Government’s proof: There is little hard evidence of how widespread or how serious the problem of signal bleed is. Indeed, there is no proof as to how likely any child is to view a discernible explicit image, and no proof of the duration of the bleed or the quality of the pictures or sound. To say that millions of children are subject to a risk of viewing signal bleed is one thing; to avoid articulating the true nature and extent of the risk is quite another. Under §505, sanctionable signal bleed can include instances as fleeting as an image appearing on a screen for just a few seconds. The First Amendment requires a more careful assessment and characterization of an evil in order to justify a regulation as sweeping as this …

    If television broadcasts can expose children to the real risk of harmful exposure to indecent materials, even in their own home and without parental consent, there is a problem the Government can address. It must do so, however, in a way consistent with First Amendment principles. Here the Government has not met the burden the First Amendment imposes.

    The Government has failed to show that § 505 is the least restrictive means for addressing a real problem; and the District Court did not err in holding the statute violative of the First Amendment. In light of our ruling, it is unnecessary to address the second question presented: whether the District Court was divested of jurisdiction to consider the Government’s post judgment motions after the Government filed a notice of appeal in this Court. The judgment of the District Court is affirmed.

    It is so ordered.


    Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997)

    521 U.S. 844 (1997)

    Vote: 9-0
    Decision: Affirmed
    Majority: Stevens, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer
    Concurrence: O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist

    JUSTICE STEVENS DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT.

    At issue is the constitutionality of two statutory provisions enacted to protect minors from “indecent” and “patently offensive” communications on the Internet …

    Though such material is widely available, users seldom encounter such content accidentally.” A document’s title or a description of the document will usually appear before the document itself … and in many cases the user will receive detailed information about a site’s content before he or she need take the step to access the document. Almost all sexually explicit images are preceded by warnings as to the content.” For that reason, the “odds are slim” that a user would enter a sexually explicit site by accident. Unlike communications received by radio or television, “the receipt of information on the Internet requires a series of affirmative steps more deliberate and directed than merely turning a dial. A child requires some sophistication and some ability to read to retrieve material and thereby to use the Internet unattended.” …

    Systems have been developed to help parents control the material that may be available on a home computer with Internet access. A system may either limit a computer’s access to an approved list of sources that have been identified as containing no adult material, it may block designated inappropriate sites, or it may attempt to block messages containing identifiable objectionable features.”Although parental control software currently can screen for certain suggestive words or for known sexually explicit sites, it cannot now screen for sexually explicit images.” Nevertheless, the evidence indicates that “a reasonably effective method by which parents can prevent their children from accessing sexually explicit and other material which parents may believe is inappropriate for their children will soon be widely available.” …

    The problem of age verification differs for different uses of the Internet. The District Court categorically determined that there “is no effective way to determine the identity or the age of a user who is accessing material through e-mail, mail exploders, newsgroups or chat rooms.” The Government offered no evidence that there was a reliable way to screen recipients and participants in such forums for age. Moreover, even if it were technologically feasible to block minors’ access to newsgroups and chat rooms containing discussions of art, politics, or other subjects that potentially elicit “indecent” or “patently offensive” contributions, it would not be possible to block their access to that material and “still allow them access to the remaining content, even if the overwhelming majority of that content was not indecent …

    An amendment offered in the Senate was the source of the two statutory provisions challenged in this case. They are informally described as the “indecent transmission” provision and the “patently offensive display” provision …

    The breadth of these prohibitions is qualified by two affirmative defenses. See § 223(e)(5). One covers those who take “good faith, reasonable, effective, and appropriate actions” to restrict access by minors to the prohibited communications. § 223(e)(5)(A). The other covers those who restrict access to covered material by requiring certain designated forms of age proof, such as a verified credit card or an adult identification number or code …

    On February 8, 1996, immediately after the President signed the statute, 20 plaintiffs filed suit against the Attorney General of the United States and the Department of Justice challenging the constitutionality of §§223(a)(1) and 223(d). A week later, based on his conclusion that the term “indecent” was too vague to provide the basis for a criminal prosecution, District Judge Buckwalter entered a temporary restraining order against enforcement of § 223(a)(1)(B)(ii) insofar as it applies to indecent communications. A second suit was then filed by 27 additional plaintiffs, the two cases were consolidated, and a three-judge District Court was convened pursuant to § 561 of the CDA. After an evidentiary hearing, that court entered a preliminary injunction against enforcement of both of the challenged provisions. Each of the three judges wrote a separate opinion, but their judgment was unanimous …

    The judgement of the District Court enjoins the Government from enforcing the prohibitions … The Government appealed. … we noted probable jurisdiction. In its appeal, the Government argues that the District Court erred in holding that the CDA violated the First Amendment because it is overbroad and the Fifth Amendment because it is vague …

    In arguing for reversal, the Government contends that the CDA is plainly constitutional under three of our prior decisions: (1) Ginsberg v. New York, (1968); (2) FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, (1978); and (3) Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., (1986). A close look at these cases, however, raises–rather than relieves–doubts concerning the constitutionality of the CDA …

    These precedents, then, surely do not require us to uphold the CDA and are fully consistent with the application of the most stringent review of its provisions …

    In Southeastern Promotions, Ltd. V. Conrad, (1975), we observed the “[e]ach medium of expression … may present its own problems.” Thus, some of our cases have recognized special justifications for the regulation of broadcast media that are not application to other speakers … In these cases, the Court relied on the history of extensive government regulation of the broadcast medium; the scarcity of available frequencies at its inception; and its “invasive” nature …

    … unlike the conditions that prevailed when Congress first authorized regulation of the broadcast spectrum, the Internet can hardly be considered a “scarce” expressive commodity. It provides relatively unlimited, low-cost capacity for communication of all kinds … This dynamic, multifaceted category of communication includes not only traditional print and news services, but also audio, video, and still images, as well as interactive, real-time dialogue. Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer. As the District Court found, “the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” 929 F. Supp., at 842 (finding 74). We agree with its conclusion that our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium …

    Regardless of whether the CDA is so vague that it violates the Fifth Amendment, the many ambiguities concerning the scope of its coverage render it problematic for purposes of

    the First Amendment. For instance, each of the two parts of the CDA uses a different linguistic form. The first uses the word “indecent,” 47 U. S. C. § 223(a) (1994 ed., Supp. II), while the second speaks of material that “in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs,” § 223(d). Given the absence of a definition of either term, this difference in language will provoke uncertainty among speakers about how the two standards relate to each other36 and just what they mean. Could a speaker confidently assume that a serious discussion about birth control practices, homosexuality, the First Amendment issues raised by the Appendix to our Pacifica opinion, or the consequences of prison rape would not violate the CDA? This uncertainty undermines the likelihood that the CDA has been carefully tailored to the congressional goal of protecting minors from potentially harmful materials …

    The vagueness of the CDA is a matter of special concern for two reasons. First, the CDA is a content-based regulation of speech. The vagueness of such a regulation raises special First Amendment concerns because of its obvious chilling effect on free speech … Second, the CDA

    is a criminal statute. In addition to the opprobrium and stigma of a criminal conviction, the CDA threatens violators with penalties including up to two years in prison for each act of violation. The severity of criminal sanctions may well cause speakers to remain silent rather than communicate even arguably unlawful words, ideas, and images …

    We are persuaded that the CDA lacks the precision that the First Amendment requires when a statute regulates the content of speech. In order to deny minors access to potentially harmful speech, the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another. That burden on adult speech is unacceptable if less restrictive alternatives would be at least as effective in achieving the legitimate purpose that the statute was enacted to serve …

    In evaluating the free speech rights of adults, we have made it perfectly clear that “[s]exual expression which is indecent but not obscene is protected by the First Amendment.” Sable, (1989) Indeed, Pacifica itself admonished that “the fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it.” …

    The breadth of the CDA’s coverage is wholly unprecedented. Unlike the regulations upheld in Ginsberg v. New York (1968) and Pacifica, the scope of the CDA is not limited to commercial speech or commercial entities. Its open-ended prohibitions embrace all nonprofit entities and individuals posting indecent messages or displaying them on their own computers in the presence of minors. The general, undefined terms “indecent” and “patently offensive” cover large amounts of nonpornographic material with serious educational or other value.” Moreover, the “community standards” criterion as applied to the Internet means that any communication available to a nationwide audience will be judged by the standards of the community most likely to be offended by the message. The regulated subject matter includes any of the seven “dirty words” used in the Pacifica monologue, the use of which the Government’s expert acknowledged could constitute a felony … It may also extend to discussions about prison rape or safe sexual practices, artistic images that include nude subjects, and arguably the card catalog of the Carnegie Library …

    The breadth of this content-based restriction of speech imposes an especially heavy burden on the Government to explain why a less restrictive provision would not be as effective as the CDA. It has not done so. The arguments in this Court have referred to possible alternatives such as requiring that indecent material be “tagged” in a way that facilitates parental control of material coming into their homes, making exceptions for messages with artistic or educational value, providing some tolerance for parental choice, and regulating some portions of the Internet-such as commercial Web sites-differently from others, such as chat rooms. Particularly in the light of the absence of any detailed findings by the Congress, or even hearings addressing the special problems of the CDA, we are persuaded that the CDA is not narrowly tailored if that requirement has any meaning at all …

    Finally, we find no textual support for the Government’s submission that material having scientific, educational, or other redeeming social value will necessarily fall outside the CDA’s “patently offensive” and “indecent” prohibitions …

    In this Court, though not in the District Court, the Government asserts that-in addition to its interest in protecting children-its “[e]qually significant” interest in fostering the growth of the Internet provides an independent basis for upholding the constitutionality of the CDA … The Government apparently assumes that the unregulated availability of “indecent” and “patently offensive” material on the Internet is driving countless citizens away from the medium because of the risk of exposing themselves or their children to harmful material. We find this argument singularly unpersuasive. The dramatic expansion of this new marketplace of ideas contradicts the factual basis of this contention. The record demonstrates that the growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal. As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.

    For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the District Court is affirmed.

    It is so ordered.



    2.7: Print versus Cable, Broadcast and Internet is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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