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WGA Slams FCC Chairman Over Plan to Review Stephen Colbert Joke

The presidents of the Writers Guild of America East and West said that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plans to review a Stephen Colbert joke about Donald Trump was an indication of the administration’s “willful disregard of the First Amendment.”

A week ago, on his CBS show, Colbert quipped during his opening monologue that “the only thing [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s c— holster.” Colbert’s mouth was blurred and the term was bleeped out for the broadcast, however.

In an interview with a Philadelphia radio station on Friday, Pai said that “I have had a chance to see the clip now and so, as we get complaints — and we’ve gotten a number of them — we are going to take the facts that we find and we are going to apply the law as it’s been set out by the Supreme Court and other courts and we’ll take the appropriate action.”

The FCC does not monitor broadcast content, but it reviews or investigates all complaints. But it is highly rare for it to take action or issue fines, and that is the case with Colbert, too. The FCC has issued no fines under Pai, who was appointed chairman by President Trump, and last issued a sanction in 2015, against a station in Roanoke, Va.

Broadcasters have a safe harbor for indecent and or profane content between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. — and “Late Show” falls within that time frame. (Broadcasters have no safe harbor for obscene content, but that tends to be applied to pornographic material). Moreover, what Colbert said was bleeped — which would make it all the more difficult for the FCC to make a case.

The FCC does not take action against individual shows or performers. Rather, it issues fines or sanctions against whatever station aired a broadcast.

But Michael Winship, president of WGAE, and Howard Rodman, president of WGAW, said that they were “appalled” by Pai’s remarks, apparently because he didn’t dismiss the complaints out of hand and view Colbert’s joke as a form of protected political speech.

“Pai’s remarks are just the latest in a series of statements by the current administration indicating a willful disregard of the First Amendment,” they said in a statement. “Colbert was poking fun at authority, a time-honored American tradition and an essential principle of democracy. What is obscene is not what Colbert said but any attempt by the government to stifle dissent and creativity. Our unions vehemently support Colbert and his writers and will fight for their or anyone’s  right to publicly express his or her opinion of our elected officials.”

An FCC spokesman had no comment.

What seems to have triggered alarms in this case is that the Colbert joke was already the source of controversy — and Pai’s comments quickly went viral. In the past, FCC officials would stop short of characterizing their normal review of complaints as investigations.

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