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FCC overrules staff, finds expletive violates law

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Federal Communications Commission has overruled its own staff and decided an obscenity for male-female relations violates federal law covering radio and broadcast television.

The FCC announced its decision March 18, the same day it announced more fines for broadcast indecency.

Last year, Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, used the word during a live broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards on NBC, saying winning an award was “[expletive] brilliant.” After the Parents Television Council filed a complaint, the FCC’s enforcement bureau ruled the word did not violate the ban on broadcast indecency. Bono’s use of the word was non-sexual, as well as fleeting and isolated, the bureau said.

After granting a request for a review of the ruling, the five-member commission struck down its bureau’s decision. It said not only did Bono’s use of the word qualify as profane under the law but other uses of the word would as well.

In its order, the FCC warned broadcasters they are “on clear notice that, in the future, they will be subject to potential enforcement action for any broadcast of the [expletive] or a variation thereof in situations such as that here.” Violators will be subject to fines and possibly revocation of their licenses, the FCC said.

Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said he was “encouraged” by the FCC’s reversal of a “completely irresponsible” position by its enforcement bureau.

“While the word in question is certainly used in many non-sexual contexts these days, its use under any circumstances is still offensive to most Americans, and certainly to me and my family,” said Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research. “Our public speech should seek to honor and promote the best of who we are as a moral people. Our children need this example. The world needs this example. We should not be seen throughout the world as the exporters of filth and coarseness.”

The commission did not fine NBC or its affiliates. FCC Chairman Michael Powell defended the non-issuance of fines, saying he “could not support a fine retroactively against the parties” since the ruling “clearly departs from past precedent in important ways.”

Two commissioners, Michael Copps and Kevin Martin, agreed the expletive is profane but argued penalties should have been levied. “I believe the commission would be fully within its rights to impose a fine for this particular instance of profanity and indecency,” Copps said. “We send entirely the wrong signal by failing to do so.”

The Parents Television Council criticized the FCC’s failure to fine NBC.

The lack of a penalty “does nothing to hold NBC accountable for this obvious breach of common-sense, decency standards,” PTC President Brent Bozell said in a statement. “The decision also does little to restore the notion that a broadcast license represents a public trust, not a corporate entitlement.”

The FCC also announced proposed fines against two companies for decency violations. The commission proposed a fine of $55,000 against Capstar, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications, for broadcasts on two of its radio stations. It also announced a fine of $27,500 against Infinity Broadcasting for a broadcast of “The Howard Stern Show” on one of its stations.

The commission also rejected an appeal by Infinity of a $7,000 fine for a broadcast on another station.

The fines continue an FCC crackdown on indecency in recent weeks. On March 12, the FCC announced nine maximum fines totaling $247,500 against Clear Channel for indecency on the “Elliot in the Morning” program on three of its stations.

The maximum FCC penalty for each violation is $27,500, but legislation is moving through Congress that would dramatically increase it.

The House overwhelmingly approved March 11 a bill that would increase the maximum fine to $500,000 per violation. The vote was 391-22. The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, H.R. 3717, also calls for FCC license revocation proceedings after three violations.

The White House has endorsed the legislation.

A Senate committee, meanwhile, has approved a somewhat different version, S. 2056. The Senate bill would increase maximum penalties to $275,000 for a first violation, $375,000 for a second and $500,000 for a third. The bill empowers the FCC to double fines if the indecency is planned in advance or if the audience is unusually large, such as for the Super Bowl.

Pro-family organizations have long criticized the sexual content and obscene and profane language on prime-time television. Criticism of TV programming has increased in the last year as a result of obscenities uttered on some live programs.

The Super Bowl’s halftime show Feb. 1, however, pushed the issue into the national spotlight and motivated Congress to act. Justin Timberlake’s uncovering of Janet Jackson’s breasts on national TV capped a controversial show and brought a deluge of criticism from many Americans, including legislators and the FCC.

Congress acted quickly, holding hearings and advancing legislation to strengthen the FCC’s enforcement of the decency standards.

Neither bill would directly affect cable TV programming. The FCC is able to regulate only broadcast television, which includes such networks as ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

That needs to change, Jan LaRue of Concerned Women for America said in a news release. The law needs to be amended “to bring cable television under the same indecency laws as broadcast channels,” said LaRue, CWA’s chief counsel. Cable channels that are part of a basic or expanded basic package should at least be under the same guidelines, she said.

On March 18, the Center for Public Integrity released a study showing half of the $3.95 million in indecency fines issued by the FCC since 1990 have been against Stern, probably the country’s best known shock-jock.