House Endorses Censorship, Backs Higher Indecency Fines

After a debate that contrasted Janet Jackson’s bared breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show with the refusal of TV stations to air the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” the House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed legislation to fine broadcasters up to $500,000 for each on-air event considered obscene, indecent or profane.

The legislation would “return decent family-friendly broadcasting to families across America,” declared Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala.

Fear of higher fines would “make it safe” for parents to watch TV and listen to the radio with their children, said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.

Parents concerned about what they children see on TV should use the remote control and the V-chip to enforce their standards, countered Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. He chided “House Puritans” for shifting responsibility from parents to government employees.

The House voted 389-38 for the legislation, known as the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act. Some 228 Republicans and 161 Democrats voted yes. Voting no were 36 Democrats, one Republican and one independent.

The White House said in a statement that President Bush strongly supports legislation that “will make broadcast television and radio more suitable for family viewing.”

The legislation would raise the maximum fine that the Federal Communications Commission could levy from $32,500 to $500,000 for a broadcast company and from $11,000 to $500,000 for an individual. The FCC also would be authorized to strip broadcast licenses for repeat violations.

Sponsors asserted that the “wardrobe malfunction” that resulted in the showing of Jackson’s breast during the halftime show would not have happened if the network, its affiliates and the performer had been subject at the time to the threat of the higher fine.

In assessing the fine, the FCC would have to consider such factors as whether the event in question was live or recorded, scripted or unscripted, the size of the audience, and whether the program was part of a children’s program.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the lead sponsor, said that while the incident involving Jackson would have drawn the higher fine, a live profane utterance by an athlete during a heated contest would not be subject to the $500,000 penalty.

The legislation passed the House last year but died in the Senate. Chances for passage by the new, more conservative Senate are considered high this year, but some senators have expressed concern about drawing a line between potentially punishing major commercial networks while exempting cable.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the new fines, if approved by the Senate, would discourage TV from “creating works that challenge controversial themes” and instead shape an artistic culture geared to “5-year-olds whose parents are prudes.”

“I’m a parent of a 5 year old and I’m a prude,” Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., shot back at Waxman. He added that the new fines would apply only to the commercial networks such as CBS, NBC and ABC, and would not apply to cable television.

Upton said the fear of big fines would prompt the commercial networks and their affiliates to censor broadcasts. He said stations should not fear that showing Steven Spielberg’s prize-winning World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan” would draw an FCC fine.

But fearing a government crackdown, ABC affiliates across the nation refused to air “Saving Private Ryan” last Veterans Day, noted Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill. She said she was “more concerned about violence on TV than Janet Jackson’s nipples.”

Rep. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, noted that network affiliates are so frightened of facing FCC fines that several refused to air a Church of Christ ad that made the point that the church welcomed gays as members.