FCC Rejects Challenge to Snyder Station Over 'Redskins'

The FCC's Media Bureau said Thursday (Dec. 18) that it had rejected a petition to deny the renewal of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder's Washington radio station, WWXX-FM, over its use of the term "Redskins" on-air to refer to the team.

Because profanity is defined as sexual or excretory in nature, the bureau concluded it could not find the word profane, dismissed the challenge and renewed the license.

Legal activist John Banzhaf had filed the challenge, focusing on use of the language as constituting "profanity," which the FCC regulates under its indecency rules. He also suggested the term was hate speech, but the Media Bureau said that argument would not fly. "There are no provisions in the Act or the Commission’s rules banning hate speech," the bureau said. "We have recognized that, under the principles enunciated in Brandenburg v. Ohio (“Brandenburg”), the Commission can take enforcement action based on broadcast speech that 'is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.' We will not do so, however, unless a local court of competent jurisdiction has determined that the speech at issue meets the Brandenburg test."

"As expected, Dan Snyder's radio station won round one in a challenge to the license of one of his radio stations for unnecessary and repeatedly using a word which has been found in several different legal proceedings to be a "racial slur" - "R*dskins, said Banzhaf of the decision, "but we have many more strings to our bow, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, who is behind this and other challenges.

“The FCC’s written opinion makes crystal clear that use of the word Redskins on the airwaves does not violate any FCC rules, is not obscenity, profanity, or hate speech and is fully protected by the First Amendment," said Andrew McBride, outside counsel for Red Zebra Broadcasting. "The opinion should put an end to the complainants attempt to use the license renewal process to coerce broadcasters into not using the team’s official name.  The FCC has made clear that the complainants threat is now an empty one.”

Banzhaf and Native Americans critical of the use of the "Redskins" name on-air also challenged the licenses of KNBC-TV and KTTV Los Angeles primarily because they were the stations in the largest markets with the nearest renewal deadlines. Los Angeles also has a large Native American population.

Those peititions also included profanity and "hate speech" as possible grounds for action, so the prospects for those appear dim as well. The FCC has not ruled on those petitions, which were filed after the WWXX petition. Banzhaf has until Dec. 22 to respond to the station's opposition to the petitions.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has said he personally thinks the name should be changed, but that is different from whether the name constitutes "profanity," "fighting words," or "hate speech," as has been suggested in the petitions.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai had said publicly that the license challenges were meritless and should be dismissed, as had station licensee Red Zebra Broadcasting.

The bureau-level decision could be appealed to the full commission and/or in court. Banzhaff said that is likely.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.