FCC Needs Clearer Guidelines, Not Higher Fines, Group Says

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The Public Relations Society of America expressed concern Thursday about the Federal Communications Commission levying higher fines on broadcasters who violate obscenity and indecency guidelines. The problem is -- the FCC guidelines are vague and nonspecific, the group said.

The prospect of facing a huge fine for violating vague guidelines could pose too great a risk for small, independent broadcasters to continue operations, the PRSA said in a press release.

The Public Relations Society of America urged the FCC to clarify and strengthen the guidelines so broadcasters and their employees know exactly what they can and cannot do.

"The problem is that the FCC never has spelled out what's permissible and what's not permissible," said Reed Bolton Byrum, a former PSRA president.

"'When in doubt, leave it out' cannot be an acceptable policy in a democracy that depends on free and open discussion," he said.

"And if we start losing small, independent broadcasters because they can't afford the risk of getting fined on some arbitrary application of a vague standard, all we'll have left are a few big media companies."

The FCC website says, "It is a violation of federal law to broadcast obscene or indecent programming," and it says to be considered obscene, material must meet a three-prong test. It also defines broadcast indecency. (See definitions)

In a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the PRSA said it supports the FCC's mandate to protect the public from the broadcast of "blatantly inflammatory, seditious and obscene materials," and it added that it would "enthusiastically apply its full resources to advise and assist the Commission" in establishing clear guidelines.

"At the end of the day," PRSA president and CEO Del Galloway said, "this organization stands solidly behind the First Amendment and its guarantees for free, open and candid expression. And sometimes that means you stand with people or organizations that say and do things that offend you to protect the freedoms of everybody else."

After Janet Jackson's breast-baring moment at the Super Bowl, the FCC requested authority to impose fines of $275,000 per incident on broadcasters, a tenfold increase from the current $27,500 penalty. But a House committee on Wednesday passed a measure calling for fines of up to $500,000 for each violation.

Under the proposed law, broadcasters would have their licenses revoked after a third offense, and the FCC would have to rule on a case within 180 days.

"For too long, the content on our nation's airwaves has been increasingly leaning towards objectionable content," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a lead author of the bill. He said he believes his bill "will protect young people from indecency and deter companies from pushing the envelope of appropriate broadcasting."

The full House could vote on the bill as early as next week, and a Senate panel plans to discuss its own version of the bill next week.