Senate Closer to Indecency Bill

Rhett Pardon
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee plans to finish work on a broadcast indecency bill on Tuesday and send it to the Senate floor, where it is expected to pass overwhelmingly.

The bill, authored by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, is similar to one introduced in the House that increased the maximum fine for indecency to $275,000 from $27,500.

But the House on Wednesday substantially strengthened its bill by increasing the maximum fine to $500,000 and including a “three strikes” license revocation provision.

Senators are likely to toughen the Brownback bill but may strike a compromise between the original legislation and the new House bill, sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

The full House will vote sometime later this week.

In related news, the FCC said it won’t reconsider a fine levied in December against a Michigan FM radio station owned by Infinity Broadcasting, a division of Viacom Inc.

Friday’s decision is small, but the ruling’s inference is big.

It indicates that the regulatory agency would consider each utterance in a broadcast as a violation of the FCC indecency guidelines.

The amount would increase dramatically if Upton’s bill is passed that would allow the FCC to impose a maximum fine of $500,000 per violation, with no overall maximum.

The FCC fines stations, not individuals, for violations of its standards. Under the guidelines, “indecent” material generally refers to broadcasts containing sexual or excretory references that are aired between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The FCC also said it would weigh whether to initiate license revocation hearings for similar violations.

Viacom in the appeal had questioned the move toward considering license revocation proceedings. It also questioned the FCC’s decision to impose the maximum fine on the matter.

The FCC fined WKRK-FM in Detroit for a half-hour “Deminski and Doyle” show. The 4:30 p.m. broadcast included nine callers who discussed their sexual activities in detail.

Infinity didn’t deny that the material met established definitions for indecency but raised First Amendment questions.

While the agency’s decision to uphold the $27,500 fine against WKRK was unanimous, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said the fine is “insufficient and not even a slap on the wrist for airing what can only be described as a vulgar and disgusting broadcast.”

FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin said there were several that would have justified a total fine of $200,000.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said he was “disappointed that the licensee in this case continues to challenge this sanction rather than accept responsibility for such an extreme violation of our rules.”

Rulings by the FCC can be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The FCC’s decision comes a week Clear Channel Communications Inc agreed to pay a $775,000 fine for airing programs by a Florida disc jockey called “Bubba the Love Sponge.”