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House passes indecency bill; FCC fines would increase to $500,000 per violation

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Feb. 16 to increase dramatically the fines for indecency on radio and television broadcasts.

The House passed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act in a 389-38 vote.

If it becomes law, the measure would:

— Increase the maximum fine from $32,500 to $500,000 per violation for radio and television stations.

— Up the top penalty for an intentional violation by a performer or network from $11,000 to $500,000.

— Require a license revocation hearing for a station after a third violation.

— Mandate the Federal Communications Commission act on indecency complaints within 180 days.

Supporters of the legislation believe increasing the fines will work to reduce television and radio programming considered indecent by FCC guidelines.

“Hurray and kudos to the House for doing the right thing and taking the first step toward cleaning up the pigsty that popular entertainment has become,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The airwaves belong to the people, and the people’s representatives need to enforce decency standards.”

Arguments from the small minority in opposition included charges the bill would be an act of government censorship. Rep. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said from the House floor the legislation is “a bad bill. It is a dangerous bill.”

Defenders of the measure, however, said it provides the muscle needed hopefully to cause federal licensees to refrain from broadcasting, as the bill describes it, “obscene, indecent, or profane material.”

“We are not changing the standard [for indecency],” Rep. Fred Upton, R.-Mich., said during floor debate. Upton is chief sponsor of H.R. 310. “We are simply raising the fines on the existing standard. And I would dare to say that there is not a member of this body who wants some of this filth to ever be said or broadcast again.”

Thirty-six Democrats joined Sanders and Republican Ron Paul of Texas in voting against the bill.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., is sponsoring a Senate companion bill that contains some differences. His proposal would increase the maximum fine to $325,000 for stations.

Neither bill would directly affect cable or satellite programming. The FCC is able to regulate only broadcast radio and television. On TV, that includes such networks as ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX.

Last year, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved bills increasing indecency fines, but differences could not be worked out, causing them to die when Congress adjourned.

Pro-family organizations have long criticized the sexual content, plus obscene and profane language, on prime-time television. The Super Bowl’s controversial halftime show last year, however, pushed the issue into the national spotlight and motivated Congress to act.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, whose actions sometimes disappointed pro-family advocates, recently announced his resignation from the panel. Opponents of broadcast indecency are urging President Bush to name someone who will consistently enforce the rules as his replacement.