- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday threw their support behind legislation that would increase fines for broadcasters who violate indecency rules.

At a hearing, lawmakers spoke out against what they view as an increasing amount of vulgar and obscene language on television and radio. They are pushing for quick passage of a bill that would allow the Federal Communications Commission to levy fines of more than 10 times what is currently allowed.

The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004 would increase the fine for a single violation to $275,000 from $27,500, and allow for fines of as much as $3 million for repeat offenders.

“Until there are financial penalties that have a real impact on the cost of doing business, there will be little incentive to curb what can only be described as a race to the bottom,” said Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

President Bush endorsed the bill yesterday.

The bill, introduced Tuesday, comes after two Republican congressmen proposed a separate bill in December that would ban broadcasters from using eight words and phrases they consider obscene.

The debate over broadcast indecency intensified after the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau in October decided not to fine NBC for airing an obscenity uttered by rock musician Bono last year during a live broadcast of the Golden Globe awards. FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell has said the commission likely will reverse the decision.

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau chief, David Solomon, defended his office’s actions yesterday, saying it was bound by the letter of the law. But lawmakers found his explanation unsatisfying.

“I know your decisions are constrained, as they should be, by certain legal boundaries, among them the Constitution and case law,” said Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat. “The problem, however, is that the decision defies common sense. And when an agency acts in such a way, it loses credibility.”

Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, said he supports both bills but criticized the FCC for tepid enforcement of obscenity rules. The Parents Television Council is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group that promotes socially responsible television programming.

Mr. Bozell said the FCC should revoke more broadcast licenses for those who violate indecency rules, and improve the system it uses to collect complaints from the public. He also suggested the commission levy a fine for each violation within a program, rather than a fine to cover multiple violations.

“I think [the legislation] will make a tremendous difference; $27,000 is meaningless and $270,000 is meaningless to a multibillion-dollar company,” he said.

Mr. Solomon defended the FCC’s track record and pointed to Tuesday’s decision to fine Clear Channel Communications $715,000 for indecent programming that aired on four Florida radio stations.

Meanwhile, broadcasters said indecency on the airways would be reduced with the adoption of an industry “Statement of Principles,” which includes a clause making obscenity unacceptable. Broadcasters favor self-regulation over government control, but say they would support any FCC rules as long as those rules remained consistent and easy to follow.

Lawmakers need to be wary of supporting legislation that will place an outright ban on the airing of certain words or phrases, said Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment lawyer with the legal firm of Davis Wright Tremaine. By declaring certain words obscene, the FCC could be forced to ban material that may have artistic, political or scientific merit.

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