Broadcasters and on-air talent that violate federal indecency laws can be fined up to $500,000 for each offense under legislation that gained overwhelming approval in the House Wednesday.
The bill (H.R. 310), which passed 389-38, is an effort to crack down on broadcasters that gathered bipartisan momentum last February after singer Janet Jackson exposed her breast during the Super Bowl halftime show aired by Viacom Inc.’s CBS.
The Federal Communications Commission, which enforces the broadcast-indecency laws, received about 500,000 complaints and fined Viacom a record $550,000. Viacom is fighting the penalty.
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), eliminated the current $32,500 cap on fines and upped the maximum to $500,000. Shock jocks and other who appear on radio and TV can be hit with the same large fines for willfully violating the rules.
Under federal law, it is illegal to broadcast indecent programming (meaning sex, nudity and foul language) from 6 a.m.-10 p.m., when children are expected to be in the audience. The law does not cover cable-TV, satellite-TV, or satellite-radio services.
Lawmakers who voiced support for the bill claimed that current fines were too small to be a meaningful deterrent.
“It’s a mere drop in the bucket, a mere slap on the wrist,” House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said.
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said that although he supported the bill, he lamented that cable and satellite providers were not included. “I think that creates an unfair playing field,” he added.
Opponents argued that the fight against indecency was amounting to government censorship, pointing to the decision by dozens of ABC affiliates not to broadcast World War II film Saving Private Ryan, fearing that repeated use of the “f-word” would trigger FCC fines.
“This is a bad bill. It’s a dangerous bill,” Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) said.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) stressed that if people didn’t like what they see on television, they can use a remote control to find more suitable programming. “I recommend that everyone buy one and learn how to use it,” he added.