By JIM ABRAMS
The Associated Press
Thursday, June 8, 2006; 4:23 AM
WASHINGTON -- Vowing to clear the public airwaves of prurient and vulgar material, Congress has overwhelmingly approved legislation to increase by tenfold the fines that broadcasters could face for indecent programming.
President Bush welcomed passage of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act and promised to sign it into law. "I believe that government has a responsibility to help strengthen families," he said in a statement. "This legislation will make television and radio more family friendly by allowing the FCC to impose stiffer fines on broadcasters who air obscene or indecent programming."
The bill would increase the maximum fines the Federal Communications Commission may levy for indecent content from the current $32,500 to $325,000 per incident. The legislation passed the House 379-35 on Wednesday after moving through the Senate last month on a voice vote.
Approval of the bill culminates a two-year effort to get tough on sexually explicit material and offensive language on radio and television following Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction."
The FCC recently denied a petition of reconsideration from CBS Corp.-owned stations facing $550,000 in fines over the Jackson incident, in which she briefly revealed a breast during a halftime concert.
The bill was important to conservative groups and its passage came on the same day that another conservative priority _ a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage _ failed in the Senate.
"The FCC will now have the authority to impose meaningful, punitive fines when the indecency law is broken," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, a group that has actively pursued cases of indecent material on the public airways. "We hope that the hefty fines will cause the multibillion-dollar broadcast networks finally to take the law seriously."
"This is a victory for children and families," said Senate sponsor Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. The higher fines were needed, he said, "in a world saturated with violent and explicit media."
The bill does not apply to cable or satellite broadcasts, and does not try to define what is indecent.
Under FCC rules and federal law, radio and over-the-air television stations may not air obscene material at any time, and may not air indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. when children are more likely to be in the audience.
The FCC says indecent material is that which contains sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity.
The legislation, while facing little resistance in Congress, had detractors warning of problems in defining what is indecent and of the erosion of First Amendment rights.
"What is at stake here is freedom of speech and whether it will be nibbled to death by election-minded politicians and self-righteous pietists," Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., said in a statement. He recalled how after the Super Bowl incident, numerous ABC affiliates refused to air the acclaimed war movie "Saving Private Ryan" because of its rough language.
The National Association of Broadcasters said it would prefer to see the nation's 13,000 radio stations and 1,700 TV stations police themselves.
The FCC has also actively responded to the increase in complaints about lewd material over the airwaves, with total fines jumping from $440,000 in 2003 to almost $8 million in 2004.
The agency recently handed down its biggest fine, $3.3 million, against more than 100 CBS affiliates that aired an episode of the series "Without a Trace" that simulated an orgy scene. That fine is now under review.
The bill is S. 193
On the Net:
Federal Communications Commission: http://www.fcc.gov/
Parents Television Council: http://www.parentstv.org/
National Association of Broadcasters: http://www.nab.org