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Congress seeks last word on broadcast obscenity

A panel weighs a bill to give the FCC the power to enforce a nearly zero-tolerance policy for some expletives.

July 19, 2007|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The battle over dirty words shifts back to Congress today.

A Senate committee is expected to support legislation that would authorize regulators to enforce a nearly zero-tolerance policy on the broadcast of certain expletives that was struck down last month.

The bill would give the Federal Communications Commission explicit authority to make "a single word or image" indecent.

The FCC ruled in March 2006 that almost any use of some expletives was indecent, even in live, unscripted instances. Broadcasters sued, saying the FCC had contradicted a long history of exempting so-called fleeting uses of the words and were infringing on their 1st Amendment rights.

The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the policy in June, ruling narrowly that the FCC had failed to justify it.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who has been outspoken about cleaning up the airwaves, wrote the bill to overcome the court ruling.

"We're essentially sending a message to everyone that the FCC is right and they should be doing this," said Steven Broderick, Rockefeller's spokesman.

The legislation, introduced Thursday, has been put on a fast track by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii).

The committee is expected to approve it today, and Rockefeller hopes the full Senate will pass it before Congress leaves for its August recess.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin blasted the June court ruling and the agency is weighing an appeal.

An FCC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the agency does not take positions on pending legislation, said, "We appreciate the confirmation of our authority to find the use of a single word or image indecent."

Broadcasters are resigned to congressional action, noting the political difficulty of a lawmaker appearing to defend indecency.

If the bill becomes law, broadcasters probably will sue and force a constitutional showdown over indecency that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

"If this is enacted, it certainly guarantees further litigation," said Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard constitutional law professor who is working as an advisor to a coalition of entertainment industry groups.

"It is essentially a directive to the FCC to proceed as if the 2nd Circuit hadn't spoken," he added.


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