Note: This article contains coarse language that may offend some readers.
At the beginning of May, late-night host Stephen Colbert struck a nerve when he fired off a particularly controversial comment about President Donald Trump.
The sexually explicit comment, which the host made during his “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” opening monologue, drew more than 5,700 indecency complaints — complaints that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reviews in order to determine if punishment is warranted.
While the joke, as Politico notes, prompted complaints from people of “all political stripes” — including “concerns about indecency, hate speech and homophobia” — the FCC has announced that Colbert will not be fined for his words:
The complaints centered on a specific jab that Colbert took at the president's relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying:
“The only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin's c**kholster.”
On Tuesday — noting that it did not conduct a formal investigation into the matter, but a review — the FCC released a statement on its decision:
Consistent with standard operating procedure, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau has reviewed the complaints and the material that was the subject of these complaints. The Bureau has concluded that there was nothing actionable under the FCC's rules.
As Colbert's “Late Show” airs at 11:35 p.m. ET, the FCC's threshold for what constitutes a punishable offense is higher than if it were earlier in the day — namely, it must be “obscene.”
This is a very high standard as, under our First Amendment, we only want to ban speech ... that is not only offensive but also serves no social purpose.
A television program like that in question here is never going to be found obscene – the words describing the specific sexual act itself was bleeped out of the broadcast, the description was not designed to appeal to prurient interests (sexual interests – it was not delivered in such an explicit way as to appeal solely to sexual interest), and it did have social significance – it was delivered in a politically motivated statement.
Under these circumstances, the extremely rigorous obscenity test simply would not be met.
For what it's worth, these types of complaints aren't exactly unusual for the FCC.
In February, for example, the FCC received more than 100 complaints against singer Madonna after networks like CNN and MSNBC aired her Women's March on Washington speech, in which she said “f**k you” a number of times and talked about “blowing up the White House.”
The most famous incident, however, is likely Janet Jackson's “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, which initially resulted in a $550,000 FCC fine for CBS.
Ultimately — courtesy of a U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling — that fine was also dropped.