WASHINGTON (BP)–The Federal Communications Commission has handed down the highest possible fine to a radio corporation after it broadcast a couple having sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and a fine against another corporation for interviewing high school girls about their sexual activities.
But some say those fines are merely a slap on the wrist for appalling behavior.
Federal law prohibits the airing of obscene material and limits broadcasting indecent material deemed “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” The FCC is responsible for enforcing that law.
The FCC fined Infinity Broadcasting Corporation $357,000 — the highest amount permitted by the Communications Act on the facts of the case — for “apparently willfully and repeatedly broadcasting indecent material” during an August 2002 episode of the “Opie & Anthony Show,” according to an Oct. 2 FCC news release.
The FCC received more than 500 complaints regarding the broadcast, which featured participants having sex in “risky locations” throughout New York City, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a zoo, Rockefeller Center and FAO Schwartz, in order to win a trip to a Boston brewery.
Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation’s largest radio station owner, was fined $55,000 for a segment on a Washington-area rock station morning show that featured the host questioning students at an Arlington, Va., high school about their sexual activities at the school.
Four of the five FCC commissioners voted in favor of the fines. The lone dissenter, Commissioner Michael J. Copps, dissented because he believed the fines were too light and would “provide no more than a slap on the wrist.”
“Neither of these cases is a difficult call,” Copps wrote. “Both are outrageous and both were run by stations whose owners knew better and whose companies have had previous indecent broadcasts brought before this Commission. I believe we should designate these cases for a hearing on the possible revocation of these stations’ licenses.”
In 1995, Infinity paid the largest fine for indecency ever handed down — $1.7 million — to settle several cases against shock jock Howard Stern. But the fine apparently did not deter the corporation from allowing further incidents of indecency to pervade the airwaves, Copps noted.
After the Stern fines, radio stations owned by Infinity continued to accumulate fines for indecent material, including what Copps called “some of the most vulgar and disgusting indecency that I have had the misfortune to examine.”
“If this situation does not meet the majority’s test for repeated violators, I fail to understand what would,” Copps wrote.
“I wonder when this Commission will finally take a firm stand against the ‘race to the bottom’ on our airwaves. The time has come for us to send a message that we are serious about enforcing the indecency laws of our country and that we will be especially vigilant about the actions of repeat offenders such as those cases before us here.
“Instead we turn an apparently incurable deaf ear to millions of Americans who are fed up with the patently offensive programming sent into their homes so regularly. Today’s decision does nothing to discourage such programming,” he said.
Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television Council, agreed with Copps.
“The fines … imposed on these broadcasters [are] less than what they spend on coffee for their employees in a year,” he said in Family News in Focus Oct. 6. “It’s just outrageous.”
Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein issued a statement regarding his vote in which he admitted that the fines were too weak.
“Unfortunately, the statutory constraints on our ability to level fines are currently inadequate, as the low fines can be considered by broadcasters as a cost of doing business and not a serious deterrent,” he wrote.
Winter said the end to filth on the airwaves will come only when enough people take a stand against it.
“Silence equals acclamation of the behavior, and you can’t be quiet,” he said. “You have to express your voice, and when you band together there is strength in numbers.”