Friday, February 17, 2012
In a little-noticed incident, since most people were watching Downton Abbey that night, a British rapper, M.I.A. (pictured left) performing during this year’s NFL Super Bowl halftime show, looked into the camera, uttered an expletive, and flipped the bird to millions of viewers around the world. As a result, in addition to millions of people knowing of her existence, she may be in breach of contract with the NFL.
As reported by Yahoo.com Sports, NFL spokesman, Greg Aiello, maintains that when the league hires the entertainment for the show, the artists are required to sign an agreement containing safeguards concerning artists’ conduct. TMZ.com reports that the agreement between M.I.A. and the NFL contained a clause indemnifying the NFL against any fines that may be imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a result of her behavior during the halftime show. TMZ also reported that the NFL agreed to indemnify NBC against any such fines, because the NFL is responsible for the halftime show’s content. M.I.A. thus may be contractually obligated to pay any fines that the FCC chooses to impose on NBC and the NFL. The news reports do not make clear what other remedies the NFL might have against M.I.A., since the indemnification clause would seem to cover any harms the NFL could suffer as a result of M.I.A.’s conduct.
The FCC sets out the relevant regulatory scheme as follows:
Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment and cannot be broadcast at any time. To be obscene, the material must have all of the following three characteristics:
- an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
- the material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and
- the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Indecent material is protected by the First Amendment, so its broadcast cannot constitutionally be prohibited at all times. However, the courts have upheld Congress' prohibition of the broadcast of indecent material during times of the day in which there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience, which the Commission has determined to be between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Indecent programming is defined as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” Broadcasts that fall within this definition and are aired between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. may be subject to enforcement action by the FCC.
Profane material also is protected by the First Amendment, so its broadcast cannot be outlawed entirely. The Commission has defined such program matter to include language that is both “so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance” and is sexual or excretory in nature or derived from such terms. Such material may be the subject of possible Commission enforcement action if it is broadcast within the same time period applicable to indecent programming: between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
So, FCC fines may result if the FCC determines that M.I.A.'s conduct was either obscene, indecent or profane, as the halftime show aired before 10 PM.
[JT and Christina Phillips]