Senator's bill bolsters FCC indecency standard

WASHINGTON Thu Jul 12, 2007 7:47pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. senator on Thursday introduced legislation that would allow regulators to follow through on a new rule that says expletives uttered on broadcast television are a violation of TV decency standards.

The bill introduced by Democratic Sen. John Rockefeller, of West Virginia, would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to take action in cases where the agency finds that a single expletive was uttered fleetingly.

At issue is an FCC ruling in March 2006, in which the agency concluded that News Corp.'s Fox television network had violated decency rules when expletives were uttered by singer Cher during the 2002 Billboard Music Awards broadcast and actress Nicole Richie during the 2003 awards.

"We have to be able to protect our kids from these types of words or images," said Steven Broderick, a spokesman for Rockefeller. "If the FCC can't do that, how are they supposed to be able to do their job?"

The legislation is a response to a June 4 ruling by a federal appeals court in New York, which overturned the FCC and concluded the agency had been "arbitrary and capricious" in setting the new "fleeting" indecency standard.

Broderick said the bill has the support of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, of Hawaii. He said Inouye is expected to hold a hearing on the issue, possibly as early as next week.

The bill also has the support of Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, of Kansas, who had sought unsuccessfully to insert a similar provision into an appropriations bill on Tuesday.

No fines were imposed but Fox challenged the decision to the appeals court, arguing that the government's decency standard was unclear, violated free speech protections and that the rulings had contradicted findings in past cases.

The FCC under the Bush administration embarked on a crackdown of indecent content on broadcast TV and radio in 2004 after pop star Janet Jackson briefly exposed her bare breast during the broadcast of that year's Super Bowl halftime show.

A few weeks after that incident, the FCC reversed an earlier staff decision and ruled that the fleeting use of an expletive by U2 rock star Bono during a 2003 NBC broadcast was indecent.