Senate Panel Revives FCC's Indecency Authority

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The Senate Commerce Committee Thursday unanimously adopted by voice vote a bill that would revive the Federal Communications Commission's authority to punish radio and TV stations for the fleeting broadcast of the F-word and other profanities.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), came in response to a June federal court ruling that said the FCC's new policy of cracking down on the unscripted, one-time utterance of the F-word was such a significant departure from precedent that it was "arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act" -- a law that imposes due-process requirements federal agencies like the FCC.

“This bill is a narrowly tailored approach that would allow the FCC to maintain its policy adopted in 2003 and hold broadcasters responsible for airing expletives and indecent material, even if that material was only shown fleetingly," Rockefeller said in a prepared statement.

Last week, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) announced that he would support Rockefeller -- a move that probably guaranteed easy committee passage Thursday.

"I appreciate the actions by the Senate Committee … which affirmed the [FCC's] ability to protect our children from indecent language and images on television and radio," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said in a prepared statement after the vote. “Significantly, members of Congress stated once again what we on the [FCC] and every parent already knows: Even a single word or image can indeed be indecent.”

Martin -- who has pressed cable operators to sell channels a la carte, not just in tiers, to address parental indecency concerns -- has spearheaded the FCC's crackdown on broadcast indecency since taking office in March 2005. Last year, Congress raised the FCC's maximum indecency fine from $32,500 to $325,000 per offense.

The FCC has until early September to decide whether to appeal the Second Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rockefeller's indecency bill would not affect the cable industry. His staff is preparing separate legislation that would give the FCC power to regulate excessively violent cable programming. A Rockefeller aide has said that the senator did not support forcing cable operators to sell channels one at a time to address his violent-content concerns.

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