Commissioner Says Broadcasters Should Help FCC Prove Indecency Charges

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

( - A member of the Federal Communications Commission believes broadcasters have an obligation to help the FCC prove allegations of indecency against them. According to Commissioner Michael Copps, the president of one major broadcasting company agrees.

"Every day I hear from Americans who are fed up with the patently offensive programming coming their way," Copps told the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in a Jan. 9, 2002, speech.

"When it comes to the broadcast media, the FCC has a statutory obligation to protect children from obscene, indecent or profane programming. I take this responsibility with the utmost seriousness," he said.

Copps says he's concerned with the increase in sexually explicit and profane programming on radio and television and the potentially detrimental effects of such programming on children.

"Our nation has enacted laws, constitutionally sanctioned laws, to protect young people from these excesses," he said.

But under current FCC regulations, a citizen complaining about alleged indecency in a broadcast is required to provide a recording of the incident to prove that the material in question actually aired. Copps says that places an "inordinate responsibility" on the person filing the complaint.

"It seems to me that ... it is the Commission's responsibility to investigate complaints that the law has been violated, not the citizen' s responsibility to prove the violations," he continued. "Lack of information about what was said and when it was broadcast should not be allowed to derail our enforcement of the laws."

Copps is the former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Trade Development at the U.S. Department of Commerce. For more than 20 years he served on the staff of Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.), who is now chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The Democratic commissioner is calling on broadcasters to maintain an archive of their broadcasts for 60 days that could be reviewed by the FCC in the event of a complaint.

"If something is said on the public airwaves, a strong argument can be made that it should be part of the public record," Copps added. "Many broadcasters already retain recordings of their broadcasts, but I believe that all broadcasters should do so."

Keeping such recordings, he argues, is good management and good citizenship.

"Michael Eisner, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, has assured me that Disney for one is now going to retain recordings of its radio stations' programming for sixty days," Copps added.

"I want to ensure that the Commission investigates rigorously the complaints filed by citizens, and I hope that broadcasters will not impede those investigations by failing to retain recordings," he said.

But should a potential defendant in a government action be required to gather potential evidence against itself? George Getz, press secretary for the Libertarian Party doesn't believe so.

"That's just like having you fill out a tax return so that they can pour through it to see if they can collect any evidence that you have broken the law," he said. "Of course we have a problem with it. We don't think that it should be mandated, period."

Getz says no government agency should be able to compel anyone to collect evidence against themselves. Beyond that, he says the whole concept of the FCC enforcing indecency standards is the least effective to get the job done.

"Market forces can make sure that broadcasters don't send out anything terribly offensive," Getz said. "The fact is that a smart broadcaster is not going to put out racy programming while kids can be listening anyway."

Broadcasters have much more to fear in losing their audience, he believes, than in losing a small amount of money in a fine to the FCC.

"If you don't like what a broadcaster is doing, turn the station off and tell your friends to do likewise," Getz said. "You don't need government intervention to help you turn off a radio or turn off a television."

He says such an approach is a very practical response to the problem that will yield results faster than any government intervention.

"Boycotts can be tremendously effective. Just ask the sponsors of 'Politically Incorrect,'" Getz said, referring to the ABC late-night talk show. The program lost several major sponsors after host Bill Maher made comments that some viewers interpreted as insulting to the U.S. military in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Copps says he too hopes that broadcasters will voluntarily clean up the airwaves, but he's not ruling out the long arm of the law for those who don't cooperate.

"Americans have a right to expect their government to enforce the indecency laws of the United States," he said.

Broadcasters should meet certain public interest obligations in exchange for their use of the "public airwaves," Getz acknowledges, but he says Copps' suggestion sounds like something the Libertarian Party has heard too many times in recent history.

"Mommy and Daddy are supposed to turn off the television, not Georgie and Teddy," Getz said, referring to President George W. Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). "This is another example of politicians treating adults like children."