The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a dramatic increase in fines for indecent programming, rejecting criticism the penalties will stifle free speech and homogenize radio and TV broadcasts.
Supporters said stiffer penalties are needed to give deep-pocketed broadcasters more incentive to clean up their programs and to help assure parents that their children won't be exposed to inappropriate material.
The measure, which passed 389-38, boosts the maximum fine from $32,500 to $500,000 for a company and from $11,000 to $500,000 for an individual entertainer.
The bill enjoyed broad bipartisan support from lawmakers upset about incidents like Janet Jackson's breast-baring "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.
"This is a penalty that makes broadcasters sit up and take notice," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee that sent the bill to the full House. "This legislation makes great strides in making it safe for families to come back into their living room."
The White House, in a statement, said it strongly supports the legislation that "will make broadcast television and radio more suitable for family viewing."
The Senate is considering a similar bill. Any differences in the two will have to be worked out before it goes to President Bush for a signature. Last year the two chambers were unable to reach a compromise.
Opponents said they were concerned stiffer fines by the Federal Communications Commission would lead to more self-censorship by broadcasters and entertainers unclear about the definition of "indecent."
They cited the example of several ABC affiliates that last year did not air the World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan" because of worries that violence and profanity would lead to fines, even though the movie already had aired on network TV.
"We would put Big Brother in charge of deciding what is art and what is free speech," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who opposed the bill. "We would see self- and actual-censorship rise to new and undesirable heights."