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Sable Communications of California v. FCC

Sable Communications of California v. FCC


Sable Communications of California v. FCC


In 1989, the Supreme Court of the United States decided an obscenity and indecency case relating to phone calls made to a hotline that gave callers access to pre-recorded, sexually explicit content.  A law had recently been passed that banned these services (which were commonly called “dial-a-porn”) and the plaintiff, Sable Communications of California, was one of the providers of these services.  This case affected Congressional ability to create regulations to stop indecent communications.


“Dial-a-Porn” Service Regulations


Sable Communications initially began its sexually explicit phone services in 1983.  These services allowed callers to pay a special fee in order to hear messages of an indecent nature.  Initially, the FCC did nothing to ban these services, as long as they were only marketed toward adults but not to children.  In order for services to qualify under the adults exemption, they had to meet one of two criteria (or both).  The first was allowing the lines to be accessed only between the hours of 9 PM and 8 AM.  Services that maintained only these business hours were not to be prosecuted for obscenity or indecency violations.


The other way that a service could avoid prosecution is if it used credit cards as part of its process, since credit cards would only be issued to people who had already attained the age of majority.  However, after several years, the FCC decided this was not enough, and required new ways of verifying the age of consumers before they could hear indecent or obscene content.


The Ban and Lawsuit


In 1988, though, the FCC decided to simply ban all “dial a porn” services, regardless of whether they were being offered to adults only or were open for children to contact.  The FCC maintained that this was the only way to really ensure that children were not exposed to the material.


Sable Communications sued, because the FCC had just rendered its business model totally non-viable.  Sable Communications of California v. FCC was eventually taken all the way to the Supreme Court through the appeals process.


Supreme Court Decision and Result


The Supreme Court decided in Sable Communications of California v. FCC that while the courts and legislature could constitutionally limit obscene speech, merely indecent speech (like that which was being offered as part of the dial-a-porn service) was protected by the First Amendment.


The Court ruled that the FCC regulation prohibiting dial-a-porn services was in fact much more broad than it needed to be in order to actually do what it was claiming to do—protect children.  Instead of a blanket ban on all recorded sexually explicit phone services, the court ruled that the FCC should more narrowly construct some ways by which dial-a-porn services could screen out underage callers (for example, by having a live operator verify a customer's age before sending them on to the sexually explicit content).


The result of this decision was that dial-a-porn services, as well as live phone sex services, were not considered to be generally obscene and maintained legal status in the United States.