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Committed to the First Amendment 6/03/2001 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The real prim Powell?

When the FCC released its compendium of broadcast indecency actions, we were a bit worried. It was, in essence, a guidebook for filing indecency complaints. We feared it would encourage anti-indecency zealots to once again begin flooding the FCC with complaints about raunchy radio personalities, vulgar lyrics and too little left to the imagination on prime time TV. We have no evidence that that flood has yet occurred. But we do have our first piece of evidence that Chairman Michael Powell may consider anti-indecency enforcement part of his mandate.

Last Friday, the FCC tentatively fined Citadel's KKMG(FM) Pueblo, Colo., $7,000 for airing Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" even though the station played a version in which all the dirty words had been bleeped out. The FCC offered little justification: "The edited version of the song contains unmistakable offensive sexual references. In this regard, a portion of the lyrics contains sexual references in conjunction with sexual expletives that appear intended to pander and shock." The bureaucrats must have been working overtime on that language.

What is particularly disturbing about this case is that the song was a big hit for the popular rapper. The album including the song won three Grammies. If KKMG is guilty, so are hundreds (thousands?) of other stations that played it. Presumably, all it will take to get your local station in trouble for playing it is to send the FCC a recording or transcript.

At this point, we can only hope that this action is not an opening blow in another war on broadcast indecency. The last ended when the voters turned out George Bush Sr. and his FCC chairman, Al Sikes, in 1993. But before it was over, many broadcasters had been stung by fines and black marks on their broadcast licenses.

Like a lot of other policymakers in Washington, Powell talks a lot about what a strong proponent of the First Amendment he is and how he would never do anything to interfere with broadcasters' free-speech rights. We now have to question whether he means what he says. He just effectively banned a popular song from the airwaves because he and a few others running the FCC these days don't like it. Here's a worse thought: He banned the song because the White House doesn't like it.

When Sikes went after over-the-air smut, he would argue that he was only doing his job, applying the law and responding to complaints. Powell may take the same rhetorical tack. But we've been writing this page long enough to know that indecency enforcement is discretionary. Mark Fowler ignored indecency up to his final days. Sikes went after it. Reed Hundt and Bill Kennard paid it no mind.

In "The Real Slim Shady," Eminen rambles all over the place in an apparent effort to offend as many folks as he can. "Sometimes," he sings. "I wanna get on TV and just let loose but can't, but it's cool for Tom Green to hump a dead moose." After this, he may not be able to get on the radio.

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