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House bill: $500,000 fines for broadcast indecency

WASHINGTON (BP)–Congress continued its crusade against broadcast indecency March 11 when the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation sharply increasing penalties for such incidents.

The House voted 391-22 for the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, H.R. 3717. The bill would increase the maximum fine by the Federal Communications Commission for a violation by a broadcaster or entertainer from $27,500 to $500,000. The measure also calls for FCC license revocation proceedings after three violations by a radio or television station.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission applauded the action.

“For too long some broadcasters have been able to assault us with obscene and indecent material with little fear of any real repercussions,” said Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy. “This bill serves notice to those who use the public airwaves to deliberately attack our standards of decency and contribute to the coarsening of our culture that they will no longer do so without paying a high price.

“I trust that the Senate will move quickly on this bill as well so that we can begin to restore respect for our nation’s moral values in our public communications.”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said the TV industry “works best when it regulates and polices itself. Yet the industry -– either out of arrogance or ignorance or both -– has chosen to ignore the public’s pleas. 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.”

The White House has endorsed the legislation.

A bill targeting broadcast indecency but with some significant differences is ready for floor action in the Senate. That chamber’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the measure, S. 2056, March 9.

The Senate version 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. It also would authorize the General Accounting Office to study the relation between media consolidation and indecency. The bill would place a moratorium on new FCC rules that allow for larger media corporations while the study is conducted.

Pro-family organizations have long criticized the sexual content, plus 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 one 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.

Twenty-one Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, voted against the House bill.

In opposing the legislation, Paul charged it could do “irreparable harm to our cherished right to freedom of speech.”

“We should not ignore the smut and trash that has invaded our society, but laws like this will not achieve the goals that many seek,” Paul said. “If a moral society could be created by law, we would have had one a long time ago. This newest attack should alert us all to the dangers of government regulating freedom of speech — of any kind.”

The ERLC’s Duke said while he shares concerns “that bills penalizing certain forms of speech may one day be used to silence legitimate opposing voices, I cannot support a position that chooses to do nothing about this problem because of a fear of a later abuse. The freedom of broadcasters to speak their minds is not what is in question with this bill. The freedom to use the coarsest, most objectionable means available to communicate their opinions is in question.”

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.