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Senate OKs increase in broadcast indecency fines

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Senate approved a bill May 18 to require a ten-fold increase in fines for indecency on radio and television.

The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent, would increase the maximum federal fine for each broadcast violation from $32,500 to $325,000. Differences between the Senate-approved bill and an even more stringent measure passed last year by the House of Representatives will have to be worked out before Congress can enact final passage.

The Senate bill, S. 193, appeared to be mired in a committee before Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee used a parliamentary maneuver to gain its passage. The procedure enabled Frist to bring it directly to the floor without committee approval. Although any senator could have blocked passage by objecting, none did.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R.-Alaska, had declined to move the legislation through the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which he chairs.

“Radio and television waves are public property, and the companies who profit from using the public airwaves should face meaningful fines for broadcasting indecent material,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., the bill’s sponsor. “It’s time that broadcast indecency fines represent a real economic penalty and not just a slap on the wrist.”

In February 2005, the House passed its version in a 389-38 vote. The House measure would: 1) Increase the maximum fine per violation by the Federal Communications Commission to $500,000; 2) raise the top penalty for an intentional violation by a performer or network from $11,000 to $500,000; 3) mandate a license revocation hearing for a station after a third violation and 4) require the FCC to act on indecency complaints within 180 days.

Rep. Fred Upton, R.-Mich., sponsor of the House-approved proposal, said he believed the bills could be reconciled.

“We’ll work together, and I don’t think anything necessarily is a deal-stopper,” Upton said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I think the prospects are very good that we end up with something that both sides can support.”

In 2004, both houses overwhelmingly approved bills increasing indecency fines, but differences could not be worked out, causing them to die when Congress adjourned.

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

Pro-family organizations have long criticized the sexual content, plus obscene and profane language, on prime-time television. The 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, 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.

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.

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