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FCC Declares Sarah Jones's "Your Revolution" Not Indecent After All

(February 20, 2003) - Under pressure from a court suit by the feminist rap artist Sarah Jones, the Federal Communications Commission today reversed itself and announced that Jones's rap poem, "Your Revolution," is not indecent after all. The poem, with plenty of racy language, is deeply political, and a powerful critique of misogynist messages in both hip-hop and rock music. (See FEPP's commentary, "The Strange Case of Sarah Jones.")

The FCC's indecency standard for censoring expression on radio and broadcast television is vague and subjective enough to support any conclusion. The standard prohibits airing language or images that are sexual in nature and are "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."

In a May 2001 "Notice of Apparent Liability," the FCC found that "Your Revolution," which was broadcast by radio station KBOO in Portland, Oregon, met the test. Its decision today reversed that ruling, finding that although this was "a very close case," the rap is not indecent because "on balance and in context," the sexual descriptions are "not sufficiently graphic to warrant sanction." For example, the commissioners said (with a humorlessness that is itself amusing): "the most graphic phrase ('six foot blow job machine') was not repeated." Moreover: "We take cognizance of the fact presented in this record that Ms. Jones has been asked to perform the song at high school assemblies."

The Commission's turn-around was undoubtedly sparked by the pendency of Jones's lawsuit challenging the original decision to ban "Your Revolution" from the airwaves. A federal district court had dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds, but Jones's appeal of that decision has been pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for several months, and the government's brief defending the FCC's censorship ruling was due to be filed on February 24.

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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