I've never had instance to swear or use profane terminology on ATC frequencies but I've always wondered if the same FCC restrictions which apply to terrestrial entertainment radio stations are in effect for air traffic as well. I'm guessing that yes, they do and you can run afoul with the FCC over the use of bad language over aviation VHF frequencies? Does anyone else know about this?

18 USC 1464 seems to spell out a criminal act, but 'any obscene, indecent, or profane thing' is fairly vague language and subject to quite a bit of interpretation. Is this to be cross referenced against, say, the indecency lines in the Supreme Court case FCC vs Pacifica Foundation in respect to George Carlin's 'Seven Dirty Words'?

Some examples: in the film Threshold: The Blue Angels Experience, an opposing Solo makes the following radio comment while performing the Dirty Loop:

"That's very interesting, boss. I just got down to 40 knots on the top of that son of a bitch."

And then there are these two potty mouths who work (or used to work) for Southwest Airlines making some less than flattering comments about their coworkers on a hot mike.

Both seem to violate the terms of 18 USC 1464. Is one more deserving of prosecution than the other?

  • $\begingroup$ Your edit to include the material from my answer in the question seems a bit odd. Why not just comment on my answer if you thought it unclear? $\endgroup$ – J Walters Dec 24 '16 at 4:24

Under United States jurisdiction it is illegal to broadcast profanity in radio communication. See 18 U.S. Code §1464

Whoever utters any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

Note that the FCC is tasked with enforcing this code:

Civil enforcement of these requirements rests with the FCC, and is an important part of the FCC's overall responsibilities.

The above is excerpted from the FCC FAQ which also outlines what is considered obscene, indecent, or profane based in part from Supreme Court legal precedent.

Regarding "swearing", the FCC FAQs further state that:

Depending on the context presented, use of the F-Word or other words as highly offensive as the F-Word may be both indecent and profane

To my knowledge 18 U.S. Code §1464 has not been court tested in a case involving aircraft radio transmissions.

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    $\begingroup$ I suspect that if that statue was challenged in court it would be brought down. It seems pretty broad and an obvious first amendment violation. $\endgroup$ – David says Reinstate Monica Dec 24 '16 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidGrinberg Oh, it has been challenged. Not sure of all the details, but 47 U.S. Code § 326 addresses the free speech aspect. $\endgroup$ – J Walters Dec 24 '16 at 4:40
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    $\begingroup$ You are forgetting that you are, apparently (according to your link) allowed to be profane between 10pm and 6am local time.... "Pilots after Dark" should be a thing...I'll just leave that thought there. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Dec 24 '16 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ Further, the link seems to only be in reference to entertainment broadcasts. When they say "radio" do they mean "all radio signals" or just "radio signals that have been designated for the use of entertainment broadcasting" which is what is often meant when people use "radio" in a colloquial sense. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Dec 24 '16 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, check into this: transition.fcc.gov/eb/Orders/2001/fcc01090.html I'm not sure what you cite actually applies, @voretaq7 may be right on this. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Dec 24 '16 at 7:05

I'm not sure if FCC broadcast regulations specifically apply to airband VHF: It's not really a "broadcast station" in the sense of FCC regulations, but rather a wireless service (RT) on spectrum delegated to another agency. The FAA handles regulation of the service, the FCC just gave them a particular chunk of the VHF spectrum to use for it.

Obscene or profane transmissions are generally frowned upon by both pilots and controllers though, and the FAA specifically prohibits "obscene, indecent,or profane language" on their communication services (JO 72103Z) - Controllers can face disciplinary action over it, and I imagine they could find something in the regulations to charge a pilot with if they wanted to.

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    $\begingroup$ The FCC regulates all radio communication in the US - not just "broadcast". See the other answer's citation of US federal law. $\endgroup$ – nobody Dec 24 '16 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewMedico Actually according to this, voretaq 7 is right: gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-1996-title47-vol4/pdf/… While 18 U.S. Code §1464 gives the FCC broad authority regarding radio transmissions, the enforcement found in 47 CFR 73.3999 (linked above) seems to apply to only AM/FM/Television. Basically people who are broadcasting "entertainment". $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Dec 24 '16 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewMedico Further, the FCC has repeatedly stayed out of regulating anything that "isn't generally publicly available", which should apply to ATC because you need a specialized receiver, and most people don't have that type or reciever so... You have to read between the lines, but this theory is contained in this document: firstamendmentcenter.org/madison/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/… $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Dec 24 '16 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewMedico I will admit, none of this amounts to a clear cut rule (possibly by design), but from everything I've read, it looks like the FCC stays out of this and lets the FAA handle the bands it has been allocated. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Dec 24 '16 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ @mins FCC regs (much like FAA regs) target the licensee/certificate holder - so if your radio guest gets on the air and says 7 very specific words they'll fine the person who holds the license, just like if you let your buddy steer and they take you into Class B airspace without a clearance the FAA will come after you for it. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jan 5 '17 at 22:16

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