House votes to raise fines for indecent programming

By The Associated Press
03.12.04

WASHINGTON — Angered by what they called an increasing coarseness on over-the-air television and radio, House lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to raise the maximum fine for broadcasters and personalities who air indecent material.

The House yesterday voted to set the maximum fine for both broadcasters and entertainers at $500,000 per indecent incident, up from $27,500 for license holders and $11,000 for personalities.

The bill, H.R. 3717, now goes to the Senate, where the Commerce Committee has also passed legislation raising the maximum indecency fine to $500,000.

“It’s a shame we have to address this issue, but when members of the broadcast industry violate the boundaries of reasonable tolerance, that’s exactly what we’re forced to do,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. “The House has sent a clear signal to our broadcasters: Enough is enough.”

The vote was 391-22, as members of both parties decried what they said was inappropriate programming during times that children may tune in.

“As the father of two young boys, I share the disgust of parents around the country who are appalled at what is broadcast on our public airwaves,” said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas. “Parents have a right to expect decent standards for their children.”

Senators went further in their bill, S. 2056, raising the maximum fine to $500,000 and approving provisions to address violence on television and to delay for one year the FCC’s media-ownership rules that allow, among other things, companies to own both newspapers and broadcasting stations in the same market. During that time, the General Accounting Office would look at whether there is a connection between indecency and media consolidation.

If those provisions remain in the Senate bill, then negotiators for both houses will try to work out the differences.

Though introduced in January following FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s call for higher fines, the bill wound up on a fast track to passage after the now-infamous Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime show that ended with singer Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson’s breast to 90 million viewers.

The FCC said yesterday it had received 530,828 complaints just about the halftime show. Last year, the agency received 240,350 indecency complaints for all programs.

“On Super Bowl Sunday, all of America saw how just how disgusting the industry is intent on being and said collectively they’ve had enough,” said L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council, a conservative advocacy group.

But the American Civil Liberties Union decried the action, saying that freedom of speech could be impinged as broadcasters try to follow a vague definition of what is indecent.

Federal law and FCC rules prohibit over-the-air radio and TV stations from airing offensive material that refers to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuned in. There are no such restrictions for cable and satellite TV and satellite radio.

“The vagueness of the language will lead broadcasters and individuals to stifle their remarks and remain silent rather than run the risk of facing an FCC fine,” said Marvin Johnson, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “In the end, we are left with no clear understanding of just what is ‘indecent’ and worse yet, it seems we will only find out when huge fines are levied on broadcasters or speakers.”

The House bill also requires the FCC to act on indecency complaints within 180 days after they are received, and orders the agency to consider revoking license of any broadcaster found with three indecency violations.