Editorial: Open and Shut

FCC should make quick work of Colbert investigation

FCC chairman Ajit Pai should resist any pressure to delve into the angry humor of Stephen Colbert beyond the standard duty to investigate consumer complaints.

So, far, the FCC is doing what could be expected when it gets complaints about indecent or obscene content. That is, investigate the complaint, then preferably resolve it with dispatch, which the FCC has often honored more in the breach than the observance. Historically the FCC has taken too long to resolve such complaints. But Pai has also complained about the slowness of FCC decisionmaking and its impact on the private sector.

Colbert’s comments came after 10 p.m., so cannot be pursued under the FCC’s indecency rules. It is good to remind folks that any broadcaster who wanted to could air between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. fare just as four-letter and full-frontal filled as the raunchiest cable show or even the triple X-iest web porn. They don’t, of course, because the primary governor on the limits of their speech is the taste of their audience and always has been. But that is another editorial.

And, to be smut, as Tom Lehrer pointed out, it must be utterly without redeeming social importance. Colbert’s comments hardly rose to the Comedy Central roast level of crude, much less something that could be found illegal under the obscenity statute.

So, the FCC should make short work of its “investigation” and close the book, not only because it is an open-and-shut case, but also because an ongoing investigation has consequences, as pointed out by veteran First Amendment attorney John Crigler. “The complaint can be the punishment,” he pointed out, including taking a toll (literally) on license transfers and renewals.

This regulatory beating should not commence.