Brownback plan targets tougher FCC

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By Brooks Boliek

WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas is looking to strengthen the government's hand at regulating content this week.

Brownback, one of Congress' most conservative lawmakers, plans to offer two amendments to a government spending bill todayThursday when the Senate Appropriations Committee considers legislation that would restore the FCC's power to fine broadcasters for a slip of the tongue and allow it to regulate violent content.

"Parents should not have such a difficult time protecting their children from broadcast television," the lawmaker said in a statement. "The FCC's ability to restrict the gratuitous use of obscene, violent and indecent content on broadcast television is essential to the protection of children and families."

In June, the federal appeals court in New York tossed out a key FCC indecency ruling that said a slip of tongue would get broadcasters a fine for indecency. It told the commission that it failed to give a good reason for its decision and couldn't likely find a good reason if it had to.

Brownback aides refused to provide a copy of the amendments. Becky Ogilvie, a spokesman for the senator, said that Brownback would not release the langugage until he offered them for consideration by the committee.

The ACLU asked Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the panel's chairman and senior Republican, respectively, to oppose the amendments.

"Slipping an amendment of such consequence into this appropriations bill -- with such limited discussion -- is reckless and shows little regard for the significant First Amendement issues at hand," ACLU director Caroline Fredrickson wrote. "There are some things the government does well, but deciding what is aired and when on television is not one of them."

In the ruling, the FCC decided that language used by Nicole Richie and Cher during the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards was indecent and profane. During the 2002 show, Cher told the audience, "People have been telling me I'm on the way out every year? So fuck 'em." In 2003, Richie said: "Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It's not so fucking simple."

While the commission found that the shows violated the broadcast indecency rules, it didn't issue a fine because the shows predated a policy established in 2004 after U2 frontman Bono said winning a Golden Globe was "really, really fucking brilliant."

In the Bono decision, the commission changed its definition of "fleeting" use, deciding that a certain word can be so vile that it runs afoul of the nation's indecency laws. The court's decision appeared to undo the Bono decision, which has been sitting at the commission on review for some time.

"The (commission's order) makes passing reference to other reasons that purportedly support its change in policy, none of which we find sufficient," the court wrote.

Brownback also intends to offer an amendment that would give the commission authority to block excessively violent content during the hours when children are most likely to be in the audience.

It was unclear just what would constitute "excessively violent content," but Brownback and other proponents of a firm regulatory hand on the issue have been looking for a means to attack what they claim is harmful content.

The 1978 Pacifica decision came about after a complaint was raised against a Pacifica station in New York that played George Carlin's bit "Filthy Words." While it established First Amendment protection for indecent speech, it also said that the commission could regulate it to protect children from the language.

Under federal court rulings and commission rules, material is indecent if it "in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium." Indecent speech can be aired safely between 10 p.m.-6 a.m.

Brownback was the key senator who pushed through legislation last year raising the fines broadcasters face by a factor of 10 to $325,000 per incident.
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