Justice Dept. sues News Corp. over FCC defiance

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RELATED: FCC should drop "nostalgic" Fox indecency fine

UPDATED 4:07 p.m. PT April 6, 2008

WASHINGTON -- The federal government has sued News Corp. for violating the nation's indecency laws for an episode of the defunct reality program "Married to America" in which possibly offending body parts were pixilized.

Lawsuits were filed Friday by the U.S. Department of Justice in four jurisdictions seeking to enforce the FCC's $56,000 in fines for airing the program in violation of the rules. The suits come just as the statute of limitations against the broadcaster were set to expire.

In all, the government filed five suits in federal court in the District of Columbia and one each in Iowa, West Virginia and Tennessee. Filing the suits in different districts covers all the legal bases necessary to bring the lawsuits, either where the complaints were filed against the stations that aired the program, their corporate headquarters or where the relevant agency is located.

Although the fines were levied by the commission, the DOJ is required to bring the suites to enforce the fines.

"We have an obligation to protect our children by enforcing laws restricting indecent content on TV and radio," FCC spokeswoman Mary Diamond said. "For four years, News Corp. has failed to take responsibility for airing indecent programing during 'Married by America.' It is long past time for the company to accept responsibility and pay its fines."

Fox said it was happy that the case will go to court and get out of the FCC's clutches.

"We look forward to the opportunity to present the full factual and legal arguments in the 'Married by America' case to an impartial and open court of law," the company said.

According to a copy of one suit filed in Washington, the DOJ agreed with the commission that the broadcast met the legal requirements for indecency, even though possibly offending body parts were electronically obscured.

"The indecent material in defendant's broadcasts of the April 7, 2003, episode was pandering, titillating and shocking," the DOJ wrote. "The whole point of the strippers' performances appears to be to titillate the brides and grooms-to-be and by extension the audience."

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 from 10 p.m.-6 a.m.

According to the court, the episode in question included depictions of "the thrusting of a male stripper's crotch into a woman's face; a topless stripper performing a lap dance for a groom-to-be; a topless female stripper spanking with a whip or belt the buttocks of a topless man who is on all fours; two topless female strippers apparently kissing while straddling a shirtless man; and a female stripper cupping her own bare breasts and puckering her lips."

Friday's case is the latest in a series of legal tests for the government's indecency doctrine, which have impact on the broadcast world but not on cable satellite TV and radio or the Internet.

In March, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments over the FCC's policy regarding so-called "fleeting expletives" in a closely watched case that will decided if the government can fine or revoke a broadcaster's license because someone says a bad word.
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