Indecency-Fine Boost in Jeopardy

The Federal Communications Commission's indecency-fine increases and other content-crackdown measures will be history if one powerful senator has his way, and one key activist group fears that it may well be the death blow to congressional toughening of FCC indecency enforcement.

Nevada Republican Senator and Commerce Committee Member John Ensign, who originally voted to include an indecency enforcement amendment in a defense spending authorization bill tied up in a House-Senate conference, now wants that provision scrapped.

Ensign still supports the basic amendment, introduced by Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). That amendment would boost FCC fines by 10 times, which Ensign says would be helpful as both a deterrent and punishment, but says it is too loaded down with deal-breakers.

In a letter to Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) and ranking member Carl Levin (D-Mich.) last week, Ensign said that the extraneous and controversial provisions regarding media ownership limits and cable indecency could jeopardize agreement on a compromise bill before the current session ends Oct. 8. "I strongly believe that all provisions unrelated to the underlying Department of Defense Authorization bill should be dropped in conference," he told the committee leaders.

Still, there may yet be hope for at least the baseline amendment. A Hill source with knowledge of the negotiations said that Ensign and Brownback were working on hammering out some acceptable version, stripped of the deal-breakers and including a provision that would make clear that the 10-times fines would not be levied retroactively. If so, it could happen as early as late Tuesday, said the source.Among the potential deal-breaker add-ons to the Brownback amendment when it passed last June was one from Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would permanently throw out the FCC's June 2 ownership revamp and an amendment from Senator Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) creating a violence safe harbor. Both have generally been considered poison pills and Ensign wants to throw them out before they endanger passage of a bill whose main focus, he says, is to "combat terrorism, provide for homeland defense and provide quality-of-life improvements for members of the Armed Forces."

The House version of the defense authorization bill has no indecency provision.

Ensign's letter drew an angry response from the Parents Television Counsel, a prime mover in indecency complaints.

“I am disappointed that one lawmaker – Nevada Senator John Ensign – has taken it upon himself to try to remove the indecency provision from this Bill, " said PTC President Brent Bozell. "Senator Ensign’s rationale of ‘form over substance’ could prove to be the kiss of death for the fine increase.

"This measure represents the only viable avenue for the indecency provision to become law during this Congressional session. The increase in fines has received overwhelming bi-partisan support.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.