House Increase of Indecency Fines Will Have a Chilling Effect on Speech: ACLU Calls on Senate to Protect First Amendment

February 16, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The House today passed legislation to increase Federal Communications Commission fines for broadcast indecency, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to call on the Senate to preserve First Amendment protections. Current ambiguities in the definition of indecency, coupled with the increased penalties, would chill free speech over the nation’s airwaves, the ACLU said.

“Today’s vote is the first step toward ensuring that not only our First Amendment rights suffer, but the national dialogue as well,” said Marvin J. Johnson, an ACLU legislative counsel. “In the end, we’ll be left with no clear understanding of just what is ‘indecent’ and worse yet, it seems we will only find out when huge fines are levied on broadcasters or speakers.”

The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 (H.R. 310) would dramatically increase the fines for the transmission of “obscene, indecent, or profane” language on television or radio — to $500,000 for each individual violation. The bill allows speakers to be fined up to $500,000 as well.

The core problem with the legislation is confusion over what is “indecent,” the ACLU said. For instance, last year the FCC reversed years of precedent and held that use of the “F-word” by the lead singer for U2 during the Golden Globes constituted “indecency.” And Last Veteran’s Day, some stations refused to air “Saving Private Ryan” because it contained multiple instances of the same word uttered by Bono. Yet, the stations that did air “Saving Private Ryan” were not fined for indecency.

“The ambiguity in FCC standards of indecency is such that they can be selectively enforced, based on the content of the speech or who is speaking,” Johnson added. “This isn’t about four-letter words on prime-time cop dramas, it’s about our ability to publicly access and express ideas and arguments.”

The ACLU’s letter on the House bill can be found at:

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