Bush Signs Indecency Bill, Fines for Broadcasters Increase Tenfold

Michael Hayes
WASHINGTON — The firestorm that began with Janet Jackson’s infamous 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” has resulted in a new law signed by President Bush Thursday that subjects broadcasters to increased FCC fines for indecent material.

Under the new law, the FCC will be able to fine broadcasters $325,000 for each indecent broadcast via TV or radio. The old fine — $32,500 — amounted to what many in Congress called a slap on the wrist for wealthy broadcasters.

"The problem we have is that the maximum penalty that the FCC can impose under current law is just $32,500 per violation," Bush said. "And for some broadcasters, this amount is meaningless. It's relatively painless for them when they violate decency standards."

Bush went on to say that the fine hike would force the broadcast industry to take its duty seriously to keep the airwaves free of obscene, profane and indecent material.

The new law does not define what qualifies as indecent material, something that has adult entertainment attorney Lawrence G. Walters worried.

“For all intents and purposes, the definition of indecency does not exist,” Walters told XBIZ. “The increased fines will create a chilling effect on otherwise protected speech. The censorship will be real, but it will be inconsistent, leaving broadcasters in the dark.”

The network at the epicenter of the controversy, CBS, recently saw more than 100 of its affiliates get hit with $3.3 million in fines for airing an episode of “Without a Trace” that depicted an orgy.

Since 2003, the FCC has ratcheted up the frequency of its fines, prompting many broadcasters to cry foul. The agency dolled out almost $8 million in fines in 2004 — up from $440,000 the previous year.

According to Walters, the jump in fines could make indecency an issue broadcasters will eventually have to challenge in court.

“This is not good for the 1st Amendment,” Walters said. “Broadcasters may want to challenge the size of the fines or even the issue of indecency.”

Praising the new law, officials at the Parents Television Council — a group that has organized letter-writing campaigns to express concern over indecency to the FCC —called the increased fines “great news for families.”

Walters sees it differently.

“It’s simply a knee-jerk reaction by politicians who feel that they must appeal to a conservative base,” Walters said. “It does nothing for the quality of content in this country.”