April 01, 2004
By Brooks Boliek
WASHINGTON -- There is a growing uneasiness among the nation's top broadcast industry regulators over a provision in legislation making its way through Congress that would fine individual performers as much as $500,000 for indecent speech aired on TV and radio.
Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell and the panel's senior Democrat, commissioner Michael Copps, both said they are worried about exercising the authority Congress would grant the agency if the bills become law. Powell and Copps were attending an all-day broadcast industry summit to discuss the indecency issue.
"I understand it," Powell said, referring to Congress' desire to make performers pay. "But I have some reservations with the FCC going after performers."
Powell said artists have always enjoyed protection under the First Amendment and slamming them with large fines would be "a very touchy area for the FCC."
"I think the primary onus has to be on the stations," Copps said. "That should be the first line of defense. They're going to find things through their contract negotiations so a wardrobe malfunction won't happen. I think that's ideally where the problem should be solved."
While Powell and Copps expressed concern about the provision, artists' representatives said they are hoping to get the provision altered before Congress votes on the final bill. Currently, the FCC can fine an individual $11,000 for an indecent act aired on TV or radio after the performer is warned first. The FCC, however, has never used that authority.
"Our primary concern is the legislation's provision that would completely change the enforcement regime for individual performers," said Tom Carpenter, AFTRA national director for news and broadcast.
While AFTRA is considering a court challenge to the provision if it becomes law, Carpenter said it is to early to say one way or another.
"There is the political will within AFTRA to take affirmative steps to protect our members," he said.
Key supporters continue to push the bill. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said they expected enactment.
"I think the chance of the bill getting through and signed this year is better than 50-50," Brownback said.
But he cautioned that amendments added to the bill that would include cable and satellite TV in the legislation would make it harder. Still, he did not rule out the chances of them being added. Under the legislation approved by the House and the Senate Commerce Committee, fines for broadcasters would rise to a maximum of $500,000 for each indecent action. The current level is $27,500.
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