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Congress moves to increase indecency fines

FCC fines would have a maximum penalty of $3 million
/ Source: Reuters

A congressional subcommittee moved Thursday to increase the fines assessed broadcasters who break indecency rules, and held out the possibility that repeat offenders could lose their licenses.

Federal Communications Commission fines would be increased by a factor of ten to $275,000 per violation and up to a maximum of $3 million under a bill passed by the House Internet and Telecommunications subcommittee.

Subcommittee members offered nearly a dozen proposals to stiffen the bill, including one that would allow the FCC to revoke the license of any station found guilty of broadcasting indecent material more than three times.

Members agreed to withdraw their amendments in order to speed the bill forward for consideration by the full House Energy and Commerce committee, where they could be added.

“We wanted to get to first base, and we did,” said Chairman Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican.

Upton said he hoped to have the bill passed through Congress and ready to be signed into law by March. President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress support the bill, he said.

Federal rules bar the airing of obscene material and limits indecent material, often defined as involving sexual organs or activities, to late-night broadcast television and radio.

Pricey consequences for future ‘wardrobe malfunctions’
FCC officials have maintained for years that the current maximum fine of $27,500 is too small to serve as a deterrent for large broadcasters, well before the sunrise appearance of pop star Janet Jackson’s bare breast during the Super Bowl thrust the issue to the fore.

“It has taken a wardrobe malfunction to illuminate this regulatory malfunction,” said Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, the top Democrat on the committee.

Members on both sides of the aisle offered a variety of amendments.

Along with the proposal to revoke the licenses of repeat offenders, members suggested that broadcasters should be held liable for gratuitously violent programming and required to keep recordings of their broadcasts to make it easier to investigate complaints.

Those found guilty could be fined a percentage of revenues rather than a flat fine, Markey proposed, or required to air public-service announcements for free. Others suggested that large networks like Viacom Inc.’s CBS should be forced to pay more than local stations that air the network shows.

Upton cautioned that lawmakers should be careful not to expand the bill to the point where it might run afoul of free-speech rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

“This bill could very well buckle under its own weight and all of our efforts to date will be for naught,” Upton said.