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March 4, 2004
Indecency Fines May Get Much Tougher

The FCC will have the ability to levy much larger fines for indecent broadcasts if a bill approved by a Congressional subcommittee passes:

A House committee voted Wednesday to increase from $27,500 to $500,000 the fines that could be imposed on broadcasters for airing indecent material. A House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee had approved a tenfold increase, to $275,000, in fines the Federal Communications Commission could impose for each indecency violation. But the full committee voted 49-1 Wednesday to nearly double that.

The Super Bowl broadcast exposed CBS to fines that potentially reached $5.5 million -- or less than the revenue it received for three minutes of advertising during the event. Under the new rules, if adopted, CBS could have faced upwards of $100 million in FCC fines. Faced with growing anger in Congress over the perceived rapid degradation of broadcast material, perhaps especially in radio, the industry lobbying group responded with polite disagreement:

National Association of Broadcasters President Edward Fritts said the group prefers voluntary industry initiatives to government regulation when dealing with programming issues. He pointed out that just recently, a number of broadcasters have taken steps to address concerns of parents and policy-makers.

Some of this is true, such as Clear Channel's suspension of Howard Stern in six markets for a particularly vile segment on his show that aired recently. As many have pointed out, though, Clear Channel's new indecency standards are just that -- new -- and they certainly understood what Howard Stern's show was all about when they picked it up for those markets to begin with. John Hogan just got ahead of the curve in order to mitigate the FCC response, which seems to have worked, at least as far as avoiding a fine.

Does this amount to censorship? Of course not; since 1934, the FCC has been tasked by Congress to enforce public control of broadcast frequencies, and the broadcasters themselves entered the business with complete awareness of their responsibilities and the regulations controlling their industry. The FCC does not engage in prior restraint by reviewing scripts ahead of time; they fine violators after the fact, and repeated violators can face revocation of their broadcast licenses. For a more comprehensive explanation of why FCC enforcement of indecency regulations does not constitute censorship, see my earlier post.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 4, 2004 5:52 AM

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