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House OKs Larger Fines for On-Air Indecency

March 12, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The move to crack down on raunchy radio and TV broadcasts pushed forward Thursday as the House voted overwhelmingly to sharply increase fines for violations of federal indecency rules.

"American parents, Congress has finally heard you," said Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-Pa.).

The 391-22 vote in support of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act was a rare display of election-year bipartisanship. A similar bill is moving through the Senate, and Congress is expected to send a compromise bill to the White House soon.

The House measure would raise fines from $27,500 to a maximum of $500,000 per violation and require a hearing on revoking a broadcaster's license after the third offense. Increased fines would apply not only to broadcasters but to performers if their actions were found to be willful. Theoretically, fines could reach into the millions.

The bill authorizes the Federal Communications Commission, in determining the fine, to take into account such factors as the size of the viewing or listening audience and the size of the company accused of violating decency standards.

Under the legislation, a station that receives programming from a network but is not owned or controlled by the network can escape a fine if the local station was not given "a reasonable opportunity to review the programming in advance." The bill also allows the FCC, in addition to imposing a fine, to require a station to broadcast public service announcements that "serve the educational and informational needs of children."

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the measure would send a "firm message from the House to broadcasters and entertainers alike that we have had enough."

And it might be just the beginning: The public outcry over indecency has given new life to an effort in Congress to further scale back rules that would allow media companies to grow larger. In addition, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has asked the FCC to examine how to define "excessively violent programming that is harmful to children," and whether there are legal barriers to restricting it when children are likely to be a substantial part of the viewing audience. And some lawmakers are pushing cable operators to allow viewers to pay only for the channels they want.

Before the House vote, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the bill's chief sponsor, was on the House floor showing colleagues a notebook filled with transcripts of programs the FCC had fined for indecency. "When I read through this book, I was embarrassed, embarrassed for the fellow who was sitting next to me on the airplane," Upton said.

Under current FCC rules, radio and over-the-air television stations are not permitted to broadcast "obscene" programming at any time. Programming categorized as "indecent" -- described by the FCC as "patently offensive sexual or excretory references that do not rise to the level of obscenity" -- is prohibited between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be listening or watching.

The legislation would require the FCC to act on indecency complaints within 180 days.

A bill moving through the Senate would go further in some areas. It would delay a rule allowing media companies to buy more TV stations for a year to give the General Accounting Office time to study the relationship between media consolidation and indecency violations, and it would require a study of whether consumers were taking advantage of the V-chip to screen out offensive and violent TV programming.

The White House issued a statement applauding the House bill.

The bill drew objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, which complained that the bill would "turn down the thermostat in an already chilly atmosphere, deterring speech that is constitutionally protected."

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, in a letter to lawmakers, objected that fining performers represented an "unconstitutional threat to free speech" and would have a "chilling effect on artistic freedom."

The National Assn. of Broadcasters, saying it favored voluntary industry initiatives to government regulation, issued a statement saying that broadcasters had moved to address concerns of parents, such as Clear Channel Communications' decision to pull Howard Stern off the air in six cities, firing a Florida shock jock known as "Bubba the Love Sponge" and establishing a "zero-tolerance" policy on profanity and sexual content for its on-air personalities.

Of the 22 votes against the bill, all but one were cast by Democrats, including eight Californians: Howard Berman of North Hollywood, Jane Harman of Venice, Mike Honda of San Jose, Barbara Lee of Oakland, Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, Pete Stark of Hayward and Maxine Waters and Henry Waxman, both of Los Angeles.

"This is an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction to current events. Congress should not be the censorship police," Lee said.

The bipartisan uproar over decency standards was sparked by pop star Janet Jackson's breast-baring Super Bowl performance Feb. 1, a prime-time broadcast watched by millions of children as well as adults.

Harman said that while she didn't like the Super Bowl show, she opposed the bill because she thought it was of "questionable constitutionality."

The lone Republican voting no was Ron Paul of Texas, who protested, "We're moving in the direction of further undermining the 1st Amendment."

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) voted present. Reps. Dennis A. Cardoza (D-Atwater), John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim) did not vote. The other members of the California delegation voted yes.

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