Commerce Committee passes indecency act

WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday approved without objection a bill that will extend Federal Communications Commission indecency authority over the broadcast of one-time, fleeting expletives or images, which previously have been exempt.

Bill, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), is a response to a recent federal appellate court decision striking down the FCC’s attempt to issue indecency violations for broadcasts that inadvertently aired fleeting expletives. The court cited Supreme Court precedent establishing that broadcasters should not be held liable for such instances.

Rockefeller’s bill, if later passed by the full Senate and ultimately signed into law, would effectively put broadcasters on the hook for fleeting, unscripted indecency.

However, observers expect that First Amendment groups and attorneys would immediately challenge such a law, setting the stage for a legal battle that could end up at the Supreme Court.

Thursday also marked the deadline for the FCC to decide whether it would ask the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals for an en banc hearing to reconsider its decision to strike down the commission’s attempt to hold broadcasters liable for fleeting expletives. By late afternoon, the agency had issued no word on whether to pursue reconsideration.

Insiders expect the FCC to forego an en banc hearing in favor of possibly asking the Supreme Court to review the decision.

FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin did comment on the Commerce Committee’s passing the Rockefeller bill, saying in a statement that it “affirmed the commission’s ability to protect our children from indecent language and images on television and radio. Significantly, members of Congress stated once again what we on the commission and every parent already knows; even a single word or image can indeed be indecent.”

TV Watch, a research and advocacy group funded in part by media companies, decried the vote. “Once again, government is ignoring parents and trying to control what families see on television — although a majority of parents, an overwhelming 92%, don’t want government making TV viewing decisions for them,” Jim Dyke, exec director of TV Watch, said in a statement.

“This bill is premised on the completely false notion that broadcasters are clamoring to air ‘F-bombs’ and ‘S-words,'” said National Assn. of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton. “Stations go to great lengths to prevent such language, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.”

The Rockefeller bill was part of six other bills or items that the committee voted on as a package. Given no debate raised over any of the bills or items, the entire committee meeting lasted less than five minutes.

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