FCC Needs Clearer Guidelines, Not Higher Fines, Group Says

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

(Editor's Note: Replaces earlier version)

(CNSNews.com) - The Public Relations Society of America Thursday called on the Federal Communications Commission to abandon its plan for increasing by tenfold the potential fines on broadcasters who violate obscenity and indecency guidelines.

In a letter to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) suggested that instead of seeking congressional authority to increase the fines, the FCC should "clarify and strengthen its current guidelines" so "broadcasters and their employees know exactly what they can and cannot do."

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 stated.

"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."

According to the FCC website, "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)

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.

The Parents Television Council (PTC) has also lobbied for tougher punishment of broadcasters violating the FCC's obscenity and indecency standards.

The PTC has filed more than 100,000 indecency complaints with the FCC over the last year. Last October, the FCC Enforcement Bureau rejected the PTC's complaint dealing with the use of the "F" word on NBC's broadcast of the Golden Globe awards. The FCC ruled that NBC had broken no laws because the foul language was used only as an "adjective or expletive." The PTC appealed the decision to the full commission and called for congressional hearings into stricter enforcement.

In January, even before the Janet Jackson Super Bowl controversy, U.S. House hearings were scheduled, prompting praise from PTC President Brent Bozell. "Congressional leaders have finally heard our outrage and now have an opportunity to force the FCC to do its job," Bozell stated in a Jan. 12 release.