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Spurred by public outrage over the Super Bowl halftime show, the House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to dramatically increase fines for broadcast indecency. While definitions vary widely on just where indecency begins, House members clearly agreed the best way to combat over-the-edge TV and radio programming is to hit companies and personalities in the wallet. Hard. Under the legislation, approved 391-22, broadcast companies and entertainers could be fined up to $500,000 per indecent incident, a huge jump from the current $27,500 for license-holders and $11,000 for personalities. The Federal Communications Commission has received more than a half-million complaints about the halftime show, which included provocative dancing and sexually explicit lyrics along with the much-publicized exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast. That is more than twice as many complaints as the FCC received in all of 2003. “That shameless exhibition was disgraceful and had no place on the public airwaves,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. “By increasing the fines, this legislation hits violators where it hurts the most — their pockets.” “Parents, families, educators — and every American who turns on a television or radio — deserve this bill,” said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “It’s time to return the public airwaves to the taxpayers who support them.” The measure now goes to the Senate, where the Commerce Committee unanimously passed similar legislation earlier in the week. President Bush has promised to sign it. The few lawmakers who voted against the bill — 21 Democrats and Texas Republican Ron Paul — complained the bill impinges on free speech. “This is going to be a very dark day in our history,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y. “We’re going down the slippery slope of eroding our Constitution.” R.J. Cutler, executive producer and director of the Emmy Award-winning 2000 TV documentary series “American High,” agreed, calling the vote “an assault on the First Amendment.” Federal law and FCC rules prohibit over-the-air radio and TV stations from airing offensive material that refers to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to tune in. There are no such restrictions for cable and satellite TV and satellite radio. Critics say the FCC moves too slowly and that the fines are too small to have any influence on huge media companies. FCC Chairman Michael Powell and the other four members of the commission — two Democrats and two Republicans — have said they believe many TV and radio programs flout indecency standards and have vowed to crack down. They all support higher fines. Whether something is deemed indecent is up to the FCC and its investigators. One problem, experts say, is that while the Supreme Court has defined obscenity — and in a landmark case told broadcasters they couldn’t air seven specific words — it never has clearly defined indecency. Jeremy Lipschultz, a professor of communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said if the fines are raised and no clear definition of indecency established, there will be a chilling effect for broadcasters. “People are afraid to speak,” he said. “When you don’t know exactly when you’ve crossed that line, the tendency is to stay way behind it.” Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest radio station chain, has called for an industry task force to develop indecency standards for radio, television, cable and satellite networks, and the National Association of Broadcasters has scheduled an industry summit for March 31. “Voluntary industry initiatives are far preferable to government regulation when dealing with programming issues,” NAB President Edward O. Fritts said. “NAB does not support the bill as written, but we hear the call of legislators and are committed to taking voluntary action to address this issue.” The House bill also requires the FCC to act on indecency complaints within 180 days after they are received, and orders the agency to consider revoking license of any broadcaster found with three indecency violations. Senators went further in their bill. Besides raising the maximum fine to $500,000, it would delay for one year the FCC’s changes in media ownership rules that allow, among other things, companies to own newspapers and broadcasting stations in the same market. The media ownership rules are being challenged in court. Critics say they will spur consolidation and leave fewer big companies in control of more of what people see, read and hear. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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