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U.S. Supreme Court

Sable Communications v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115 (1989)

Sable Communications of California v.

Federal Communications Commission

No. 88-515

Argued April 19, 1989

Decided June 23, 1989*

492 U.S. 115


Section 223(b) of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, bans indecent as well as obscene interstate commercial telephone messages, commonly known as "dial-a-porn." Under its predecessor provision -- which sought to restrict minors' access to dial-a-porn -- the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), after lengthy court proceedings, had promulgated regulations laying out means by which dial-a-porn sponsors could screen out underaged callers. Sable Communications of California, which offers sexually oriented prerecorded telephone messages to callers both in and outside the Los Angeles metropolitan area, brought suit in the District Court, claiming that § 223(b)'s obscenity and indecency provisions were unconstitutional, chiefly under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and seeking an injunction enjoining the FCC and the Justice Department from initiating any criminal investigation or prosecution, civil action, or administrative proceeding under the statute and a declaratory judgment. The court denied Sable's request for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the ban on obscene telephone messages, rejecting the argument that the statute was unconstitutional because it created a national standard of obscenity. However, it issued the injunction with regard to the indecent speech provision, holding that the provision was overbroad and unconstitutional because it was not narrowly drawn to achieve the legitimate state interest of protecting children from exposure to indecent dial-a-porn messages.


1. Section 223(b) does not unconstitutionally prohibit the interstate transmission of obscene commercial telephone messages. The protection of the First Amendment does not extend to obscene speech. In addition, § 223(b) does not contravene the "contemporary community standards" requirement of Miller v. California, 413 U. S. 15, since it no more establishes a "national standard" of obscenity than do federal statutes prohibiting the mailing of obscene materials or the broadcasting of

Page 492 U. S. 116

obscene messages. There is no constitutional barrier under Miller to prohibiting communications that are obscene in some communities under local standards even though they are not obscene in others. Sable which has the burden of complying with the prohibition, is free to tailor its messages, on a selective basis, to the communities it chooses to serve. Pp. 492 U. S. 124-126.

2. Section 223(b)'s ban on indecent telephone messages violates the First Amendment, since the statute's denial of adult access to such messages far exceeds that which is necessary to serve the compelling interest of preventing minors from being exposed to the messages. FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U. S. 726, an emphatically narrow ruling giving the FCC power to regulate an indecent radio broadcast, is readily distinguishable from this case. Pacifica, which did not involve a total ban on broadcasting indecent material, relied on the "unique" attributes of broadcasting, which can intrude on the privacy of the home without prior warning of content and which is uniquely accessible to children. In contrast, the dial-it medium requires the listener to take affirmative steps to receive the communications. The Government's argument that nothing less than a total ban could prevent children from gaining access to the messages and that this Court should defer to Congress' conclusions and factual findings to that effect is unpersuasive. There is no evidence to show that children would have evaded the rules that the FCC, after prolonged proceedings, had determined would keep the messages out of their reach. Moreover, deference to Congress' legislative findings cannot limit judicial inquiry where First Amendment rights are at stake. Here, the congressional record contains no legislative findings that would justify a conclusion that there are no constitutionally acceptable less restrictive means to achieve the Government's interest in protecting minors. Pp. 492 U. S. 126-131 .

692 F.Supp. 1208, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I, II, and IV, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Part III, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 492 U. S. 131. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 492 U. S. 133.

Page 492 U. S. 117

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