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Smut Bill Bashed as 'Bush' League - Broadcasting & Cable

Smut Bill Bashed as 'Bush' League

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The House indecency bill passed overwhelmingly Thursday (391-22), but not without hot debate that turned the issue in a new direction.

A number of house Democrats, mostly from New York, strongly attacked the bill suggesting it was part of an effort by the far right to suppress speech critical of the Bush administration. "This is going to be a very dark day in American History," said New York Democrat Gary Ackerman, one of several New York legislators who stood up for Howard Stern and against the bill.

Ackerman said he "never thought that defending the Constitution would be so lonely a job on the floor of the House. I believe in decency and Mary Poppins and all things nice," he said. "What is at stake is freedom of speech and the assault thereon." The real issue, he said, is "media power concentrated in the hands of so few and influenced by the far right and the religious right."  The issue with Stern was not indecency, said Ackerman, but that he was "beginning to speak out against the president and the administration."

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) charged Clear Channel with pulling Howard Stern not because he was indecent but because he had become increasingly critical of the Bush administration. 

Weiner said that Stern's removal from Clear Channel stations means that the election battleground states of Ohio and Florida are losing a critic of the administration just as campaign season begins. He pointed out that advertisers had not pulled out of the show, suggesting they hadn't thought Stern had crossed the line. "What is indecent," he said, "is consolidation that is destroying the independence of the airwaves.

Andy Levin, Clear Channel's Washington EVP, called the suggestion "ludicrous," adding that it was "amazing how these conspiracy theories develop."

A number of legislators, including a couple from California, also raised speech issues regarding a provision boosting the fines on performers.

The bill as passed increases fines for broadcast indecency from $27,500 per violation maximum to as high as $500,000.

The action now moves over to the Senate, where the Commerce Committee approved a similar bill Tuesday.

Senate leaders must decide whether to push their committee’s bill, which is laden with some politically controversial provisions, or take up the cleaner House bill. The White House indicated its preference Thursday by giving the House version a thumbs-up. "This legislation will make broadcast television and radio more suitable for family viewing by giving the FCC the authority to impose meaningful penalties on broadcasters that air obscene or indecent material," said the Office of Management and Budget in a statement.

The Senate version contains an amendment opposed by the White House that would block implementation of the FCC’s relaxed ownership limits. The House bill also makes broadcast networks and performers liable for indecency fines of up to the $500,000 limit.

The FCC would be obligated to rule on indecency complaints within 180 days of receipt. Stations socked with a third indecency fine during an eight-year license term would be automatically subject to a commission proceeding to revoke the permit.

That’s a slight change from the legislation approved by the House Commerce Committee, which some thought might have obligated the FCC to revoke a license after a third strike. Even on a first violation, however, the FCC would have discretion to launch a revocation investigation if the incident was egregious enough. In a break for small-market stations, the House agreed that a licensee’s ability to pay should be a factor in determining the level of fine.

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