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« on: December 24, 2004, 12:52:46 PM »

FCC Says Network Violated Obscenity Law -- But Doesn't Deserve Fine

by Jody Brown
December 23, 2004

(AgapePress) - In a historic decision, the FCC has reversed itself, announcing that utterance of a vulgar expletive on an NBC broadcast more than a year ago did, in fact, violate federal prohibitions on indecency and profanity. The fact that no fine was imposed on the network, however, has brought mixed reaction from pro-family media watchdog groups -- and from two FCC commissioners as well.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission -- acting upon an Application for Review -- overruled an earlier decision by the agency's Enforcement Bureau that singer Bono of U2 did not violate broadcast indecency laws when he used the "f-word" during the televised Golden Globe Awards in January 2003. The Bureau determined the performer's usage of the profanity had been in "fleeting" and "in a non-sexual content," and therefore did not violate federal statute.

But after receiving hundreds of complaints from the public regarding that decision, the FCC announced on Thursday it was overruling the earlier decision and had determined the utterance was in violation of existing prohibitions on broadcast content. FCC Chairman Michael Powell says the decision sends a signal to the industry that "gratuitous use of such vulgar language" on broadcast television will not be tolerated.

"For the first time, the Commission has applied the profanity section of the statute for the broadcast of this highly offensive word," Powell said in a press statement. "The Commission has an important obligation to punish those who violate our law."

But in the same statement, the FCC chairman announced why the federal agency was not going to fine NBC for the violation. "Given that today's decision clearly departs from past precedent in important ways, I could not support a fine retroactively against the parties," he said. "Prospectively, parties are on notice that they could now face significant penalties for similar violations."

Robert Peters, president of the New York-based Morality in Media, has been a strong critic of the television industry's obvious disregard of federal obscenity and indecency law and self-imposed standards. And for decades, he says, the FCC has ignored what he describes as "the expanding stream of gutter language and sex talk and action that pollutes network TV programming."

Nevertheless, Peters reacted positively to the FCC's ruling on the Golden Globe Awards incident, saying the agency has "opened its eyes and ears and determined that broadcast TV is no longer above the indecency law."

But another media watchdog -- the one that filed the Application for Review with the FCC -- is not pleased that NBC has gotten off scot-free. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, does nothing to hold the network accountable for what he calls an "obvious breach of commonsense decency standards."

"[Powell] insists he is taking a strong stance against broadcast indecency," Bozell says in a press release. "But ... his message is loud and clear: TV networks can broadcast indecent programming because the FCC will not enforce the existing decency laws laid down by the Supreme Court 25 years ago."

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has been a strong voice for cleaning up the nation's airwaves, agrees with Bozell. Referring to Chairman Powell's statement, Copps said while he is in agreement with the agency's decision to overrule the Enforcement Bureau, "I disagree that we need to give notice before the we apply the law of the land. The better argument is that the statute itself gives due notice."

Copps said he found it "ludicrous" when the Bureau decided that a "word that might otherwise be indecent" is not such merely because it is used as an adjective or expletive. For that reason, he believes the FCC would be fully within its rights to impose a fine for that particular instance of profanity and indecency.

"We send entirely the wrong side by failing to do so," the FCC commissioner says.

FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin, like Copps, cannot believe that NBC was already on notice that the "f-word" was profane. "How ironic that the majority [of commissioners voting to overturn the Enforcement Bureau] relies on the [FCC's] own failure to enforce its statutory mandate as the basis for NBC not knowing that the f-word is prohibited profanity," he says.

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