The U.S. Federal Communications Commission said on Tuesday it would not take any action over thousands of complaints about a crude joke that late-night television host Stephen Colbert told about U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The oral sex joke was bleeped before the airing of the May 1 episode of CBS Corp’s “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” but prompted a social media campaign to get Colbert fired.
FCC spokesman Neil Grace said the agency had reviewed the complaints and “concluded that there was nothing actionable under the FCC’s rules.” A CBS spokesman declined to comment on the decision. FCC rules for programs on broadcast television after 10 p.m. only bar obscene content. For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is rare for the FCC to impose fines for obscene or indecent conduct. It has issued just two fines since 2010 to television stations for improper conduct, most recently in 2015 to a Virginia TV station for a sexually explicit video aired during an early evening newscast. The Parents Television Council, which has criticized the FCC in the past, said it agreed with the agency’s decision. “It was crude. It was indecent. But it was protected speech,” PTC President Tim Winter said of Colbert’s joke. The bleeped joke, which made reference to Trump’s oft-stated admiration for the Russian president during the 2016 election campaign, came at the end of an insult-heavy monologue by Colbert.
It triggered a #FireColbert trending Twitter hashtag, with Trump supporters calling for a boycott of CBS advertisers, some people accusing Colbert of being homophobic, others accusing left-wingers of hypocrisy, and still more defending the comedian, whose show has surged in popularity since he stepped up his attacks on the Republican president.
Addressing Trump, Colbert said: “Sir, you attract more skinheads than free Rogaine. You have more people marching against you than cancer. You talk like a sign language gorilla that got hit in the head.” Colbert told his audience he was responding to Trump’s appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” the preceding weekend, when the president told host John Dickerson that he liked to call the Sunday morning news show “Deface the Nation.” Two days later, Colbert told viewers he did not regret the jokes, but acknowledged that some of the words were “cruder than they needed to be.”