Higher Fines Would Bring Cleaner Airwaves

Posted March 26, 2004 at 12:12pm

Who would’ve known America’s favorite sports ritual would set the stage for where we are today in the fight to clean up the public airwaves. It has been just 10 weeks since Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and I introduced H.R. 3717, the “Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act,” to significantly strengthen the Federal Communications Commission’s hand in its enforcement of broadcast decency laws. To say the very least, a lot has happened in those 10 weeks, and now the nation’s eyes are upon us.

The 391-22 vote in support of our legislation ought to send a signal to everyone that we mean business in cleaning up the public airwaves. I challenge the few detractors to read the transcripts of those who have already been fined by the FCC for airing indecent material. It’s more than a word or two — it’s often page after page of hardcore triple-X smut that never should have been on the public airwaves to begin with. It’s not political correctness that is being challenged or the First Amendment, which every one of the 391 who voted for this bill support.

Why indecency? Just turn on the radio or television — it is inescapable.

As a Member of Congress and, more importantly, as a father, I am fed up with the smut and raw sex that have polluted the public airwaves. If one wants to find this trash, they can — maybe on satellite radio, pay-per-view satellite, cable television or some peep show.

It seems that some broadcasters and shock jocks are engaged in a “how low can you go?” mentality, constantly trying to outdo one another. The American public has said “enough is enough” and they are demanding change. The public has spoken, and we’ve heard them loud and clear.

Some critics and naysayers have raised the issue of free speech to divert attention from the real issue. I have tremendous respect for the First Amendment and want to make it clear that our bipartisan legislation does nothing to infringe upon free speech. The laws for indecency are on the books and they have been upheld in the courts. Our bill does not touch decency standards; it strictly raises the penalties, plain and simple.

What we are talking about is the public airwaves, which are owned by the U.S. taxpayers. Using public-owned airwaves comes with the responsibility to follow the FCC decency standards that apply to programming that airs during the family hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. — the likeliest times that children may be tuned in. When a broadcaster applies for a license, they are agreeing to follow decency standards.

There must be a level of expectation when a parent turns on the television or radio between the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. that the content will be suitable for children. A parent should not have to think twice about the content on the public airwaves. Unfortunately, that situation is far from reality.

I commend FCC Chairman Michael Powell and all the FCC commissioners, Republican and Democrat alike, for their work to clean up the public airwaves. During a speech before the National Press Club in January, Powell lamented that the fines for indecency were too small and had no impact. He asked, and we delivered.

I introduced our bipartisan legislation to increase the fines the FCC can levy for airing indecent material on Jan. 20, the first day Congress was in session this year. We held our first hearing in the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and Internet, on Jan. 28 and also received the support of the Bush administration the very same day. Our bill was already on the fast track. And then came the Super Bowl — bringing the issue of indecency directly into the living rooms of nearly 100 million homes nationwide.

Our legislation will significantly strengthen the FCC’s hand in punishing those who peddle indecent and obscene material over our airwaves. Under current law, the maximum the FCC can fine per violation for indecency is $27,500, which is hardly a deterrent. I am confident that by hitting broadcasters where it really hurts — in their wallets — they will start to think twice about putting indecency on the airwaves. Our legislation raises that cap to $500,000 per violation.

The legislation also mandates a license revocation hearing after the third offense by a broadcaster (the FCC currently has the authority to hold such a hearing after the first offense, but is not mandated to do so) and also institutes a 180 day “shot clock” for the FCC to determine if broadcasters were in violation of indecency standards. Additionally, the bill raises the amount the FCC can fine networks and entertainers who willfully or intentionally violate indecency standards from $11,000 to $500,000.

Since we introduced our legislation in mid-January, we have seen some positive steps taken by the broadcast industry. The Grammys were broadcast with a 5-minute delay. The Oscars were aired with a 5-second delay.

Shortly after testifying before my subcommittee, Mel Karmazin, chairman of Viacom, had a conference call with the execs of all 180 Infinity radio stations telling them they’ll be fired if they violate the company’s new “zero tolerance” policy on obscenity.

I applaud all of these steps in the right direction, but these measures should never have been necessary. By significantly increasing the fines for indecency, the fines will be at a level where they can no longer be ignored.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.