Timely topic: public airwaves need fix
While it has not made national headlines, Congress is currently drafting legislation to clean up America's public airwaves from vulgar language and obscenity. Several bills have been introduced which seek to ensure that current indecency rules are properly enforced.
During the nationally-televised January 2003 Golden Globe Awards from Hollywood, the singer Bono from U-2 uttered uncensored obscene language in describing how thrilled he was to receive his award. To quote him, "This is really, really, f---ing brilliant." His use of the "f-word" on network television created an uproar from offended viewers and a number of complaints were filed before the Federal Communications Commission.
After reviewing the case, the FCC ruled last October that Bono had not violated Federal obscenity rules since he used the "F-word" as an adjective. The FCC commissioners noted Bono's comments "may be crude and offensive," but not indecent since they were used in a context which did not depict sexual or excretory activities which would meet the legal definition of indecency.
Needless to say this reinterpretation of Federal indecency law by the FCC generated howls of protests from citizens across the country. I have received literally thousands of emails from Second District residents outraged over the FCC ruling, and I share their views. It is simply unacceptable for the FCC to legitimize offensive speech depending on its placement in a sentence.
In response, Congress has been busy writing several bills to strictly enforce Federal indecency laws on radio and television. Two bills which I have cosponsored, HR 3717 and H. Res. 482, are gaining support in the U.S. House. The stronger of the two, The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004 (HR 3717), was introduced by the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan.
Chairman Upton's bill, which was the subject of a January 28 congressional hearing, takes tough action against broadcasters who violate Federal indecency laws by increasing the amount of fines which can be levied from $27,500 a violation to $275,000. It also raises the cap of $300,000 for a continuing violation to $3 million. These penalties are significant enough that even broadcast networks will finally take notice.
In the wake of the tremendous public outcry over its unpopular ruling regarding the Bono incident, FCC Chairman Michael Powell has indicated that his agency would likely reverse its decision. That is a good first step. Congress has put the FCC on notice that it expects the commission to do its job and enforce Federal indecency laws. I am also hopeful that HR 3717 can soon be passed into law so as to send a strong signal that improper language will not be tolerated.
Radio and television stations have a responsibility to the public to maintain existing Federally-imposed decency standards in their programming and Congress is committed to holding them accountable.