House Panel Votes to Raise Fines for Indecency

Matt O'Conner
WASHINGTON, D.C – The House Energy and Commerce Committee overwhelmingly passed a measure that could dramatically raise fines for broadcast indecency.

The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act would increase penalties the Federal Communications Commission can levy against broadcasters for airing material deemed inappropriate to a whooping $500,000 per violation — 15 times the current fine limit of $32,000. Stations would also face losing their licenses if found in violation three times.

The bill also proposes to increase fines against individual entertainers from $11,000 to $500,000 per violation.

“We’re gaining ground in our battle against indecency,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), moments after it passed through committee on a 46-2 vote. “The public is on our side, and so is the law.”

Despite Upton’s optimism, the law isn’t on his side quite yet. The bill still must go before the full house for a vote, then make its way through the senate before reaching the president’s desk.

Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the two dissenting voters, have vowed to try raising opposition against the bill, warning that its passage would threaten the First Amendment.

“We’re heading down a slippery slope when Big Brother is put in charge of what constitutes free speech and artistic expression,” Schakowsky said.

This latest round of indecency legislation was born out of the controversy surrounding last year’s Super Bowl halftime show, in which Janet Jackson breast was partially exposed for several seconds.

The furor over that incident, coupled with the prospect of large, possibly retroactive, fines for indecency, has prompted many broadcasters to institute self-imposed censorship measures.

Fox decided not to re-air a mildly suggestive ad for website during the second half of this year’s Super Bowl when it received eight complaints after the commercial’s first airing. And many radio stations carrying the Howard Stern Radio Show cut out large portions of the show to avoid violating the “community standards” clause of existing obscenity laws.

Cable and satellite companies would not be subject to the proposed fines.