FCC's Got a Brand-New Bad

Bono is indecent after all, as the definition is tightened
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Okay, new rule! Bono's f-word on NBC's telecast of the Golden Globes last year was
indecent and profane. The FCC reversed itself March 18 and broadened its power and broadcasters' liability—a lot.

Now even fleeting or nonsexual uses of some words may be found indecent and profane.

The expansion is quite a stretch, say First Amendment attorneys. The 1978 Pacifica Radio Case "seven dirty words" decision said fleeting references did not fall under the indecency standard, according to noted First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere, of Washington firm Davis Wright Tremaine. "It appears," he says, "the FCC has declared war on the First Amendment."

The FCC's Media Bureau ruled earlier the Bono "bad-lib" was not actionable because the rocker used the word as an adjective rather than a reference to sex. That decision revved up the Parents Television Council (PTC), which used the ruling as an indication of the commission's un–family-friendly thinking. Pretty quickly, Capitol Hill got excited, too. (For the record, Bono, while accepting the award, said, "F***ing brilliant.")

The commission means business. "Say it again," says the FCC, and we may just yank a station license. "All broadcast licensees are on notice that similar broadcasts in the future will lead to forfeitures and potential license revocation, if appropriate."

The FCC decided not to fine anyone over the incident, noting its decision was a change in policy. Splitting from the rest, Commissioners Kevin Martin and Michael Copps thought NBC should have been forced to pay. So did PTC head Brent Bozell. "Bono may have used the f-word as an adjective," he says, "but today's FCC ruling turned it into a verb directed at American families."

It was otherwise an action-packed week on the indecency and intolerance beat:

  • In one decision, the FCC fined Infinity the maximum $27,500 for an indecent broadcast on WRKR(FM) (for a Howard Stern broadcast) and $7,000 for a rap/hip-hop concert on WLLD(FM) Holmes Beach, Fla. In addition, Capstar got the maximum $55,000 for incidents on WAVW(FM) Stuart, Fla., and WCZR(FM) Vero Beach, Fla., in which the host and a couple have a conversation during the pair's "real or simulated sexual intercourse."
  • Two major ad trade associations wrote to the Senate opposing the extension of the indecency definition to violence.
  • Viacom President Mel Karmazin responded to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) that a particular Howard Stern broadcast wasn't indecent and the FCC's definition of indecency was a fuzzy, constantly moving target anyway. Brownback didn't like the answer. Karmazin stood his ground but did apologize for a caller who used the n-word on Stern's show.
  • Rocker Courtney Love flashed her breasts at David Letterman with her back to the camera and, at one point, gestured to her chest and said, "FCC!" CBS digitized a side view to avoid showing too much skin.

Of course, Sen. Brownback says he's going to look into that, too.