Key lawmaker calls for criminalizing TV indecency

April 5, 2005
Hollywood Reporter

SAN FRANCISCO - The chairman of one of the entertainment industry's most important congressional committees says he wants to take the enforcement of broadcast decency standards into the realm of criminal prosecution.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner III, R-Wis., told cable industry executives attending the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. conference here on Monday that criminal prosecution would be a more efficient way to enforce the indecency regulations.

"I'd prefer using the criminal process rather than the regulatory process," Sensenbrenner told the executives.

The current system -- in which the FCC fines a licensee for violating the regulations -- casts too wide a net, he said, trapping those who are attempting to reign in smut on TV and those who are not.

"People who are in flagrant disregard should face a criminal process rather than a regulator process," Sensenbrenner said. "That is the way to go. Aim the cannon specifically at the people committing the offenses, rather than the blunderbuss approach that gets the good actors.

"The people who are trying to do the right thing end up being penalized the same way as the people who are doing the wrong thing."

It was unclear exactly how he would go about criminalizing violations of the indecency statutes. Typically, the Federal Communications Commission notifies the alleged offender and, if no settlement is reached, issues a fine.

When asked how he intended to criminalize the violations, Sensenbrenner repeated his assertion that it was the best way to penalize people who violate the statute but avoid "penalizing people who are not violating the law."

While he expressed a wish to criminalize the indecency violations, he also applauded the cable industry for its actions. Cable companies allow customers to block channels they find offensive but still require the customers to pay for it.

"I think the industry is doing what it should be doing," he said. "I think this is the way it should go."

Although the indecency issue was put on the front burner last year after Janet Jackson's breast was bared during the Super Bowl halftime show, it has remained a concern for Congress.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation this year that directs the FCC to fine broadcasters and individuals up to $500,000 for airing smutty programming on TV and radio.

Obscene speech is not protected by the First Amendment and cannot be broadcast at any time, but indecent speech can be aired safely between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. because the courts and the FCC have determined that children are not a large part of the audience in those hours.

Although cable and satellite TV are not covered by the indecency statutes, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, have said they want to bring multichannel programmers into the legal mix.

Stevens attended the convention Sunday, when he met with top cable industry executives, sources said. The executives hoped to persuade Stevens to back off, the sources said.

During the meeting, the cable operators demonstrated their blocking technology, but it was unclear whether Stevens was swayed by their arguments.