Minutes after winning Super Bowl XLVII, jubilant winning quarterback Joe Flacco let loose with “F***ing awesome!” Of course, CBS had their microphones in close and everybody heard him. According to the National Constitution Center on Feb. 4, that one F-bomb could cost CBS significant fines.
It was only natural. Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens had just held off one of the most amazing comeback drives by any team in a long, long time as, after the lights went out and came back on 30 minutes later, the game seemed to belong to the San Francisco 49ers. The first half was all Ravens. It looked like a different game out there in the 3rd quarter. Then the Ravens defense caught a second wind and managed to hold the 49ers until the clock ran out with a score of 34-31 Ravens.
The players were getting doused by purple and gold confetti, slapping each other, jumping up and down, screaming, you name it. It was one happy celebration. Joe Flacco’s “F***ing awesome!” fit right in. There’s only one problem. It’s not legal.
CBS, in retrospect, should have put the immediate after-game celebrations on a time delay for this very thing. They did it with Beyonce’s half-time show. They knew that just last June, the Supreme Court confirmed the right of the FCC to fine over-the-air broadcasters if they aired profane words.
This is the first high-profile profanity case since that ruling. And it might have snuck by unnoticed except that the Parents Television Council wants the FCC to act and set a precedent by fining CBS for Joe Flacco’s poor choice of words, noting that broadcast networks continue to have “malfunctions” even after the Janet Jackson event nine years ago.
In the Janet Jackson case, the ruling said that the FCC failed to give CBS proper notice, in that specific incident, after Jackson had the now infamous “wardrobe malfunction” which exposed part of her anatomy to the TV audience. However, Chief Justice John Roberts made his feelings clear on this situation by fining CBS for the Jackson incident after the fact.
Officially, obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment and may not be broadcast all. Profanity, however, is different.
“The FCC has defined profanity as ‘including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.’ Like indecency, profane speech is prohibited on broadcast radio and television between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.,” the FCC policy reads.
“Joe Flacco’s use of the f-word, while understandable, does not absolve CBS of its legal obligation to prevent profane language from being broadcast – especially during something as uniquely pervasive as the Super Bowl. The instance was aired live across the country, and before the FCC’s designated ‘Safe Harbor’ time everywhere but along the East Coast.”
Broadcasters have argued unsuccessfully in a series of legal cases that the First Amendment protects them from FCC fines in such cases, but it has been years since the FCC has issued a significant obscenity fine against a broadcast TV network.