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WASHINGTON — Lawmakers turn their attention to the television industry Monday as the Senate Commerce Committee examines the effect of violent content on America’s youth.
The hearing comes as policymakers and the federal courts appear to be developing divergent views on the government’s regulation of media content.
Such policymakers as FCC chairman Kevin Martin and Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., have proposed tightening restrictions on the media, while the courts, including the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York and the U.S. Supreme Court, have issued opinions telling the government to back off.
Martin has pushed for policy changes the court threw out that would have allowed the FCC to fine broadcasters as much as $325,000 per incident for an obscene slip of the tongue. The court ruled that the commission had failed to show why broadcasters should be fined for an accident. It also told the FCC that there was little likelihood that it could fix its policy and questioned whether it was time to review the entire indecency doctrine.
Rockefeller and Martin have both pushed policies that would expand broadcast indecency policy to violence. Earlier this year, Martin told Congress that the FCC could regulate violence on cable and broadcast TV if it was given the authority.
It’s an authority many in Congress want to give.
“He wants to give the FCC authority to regulate excessive TV violence on broadcast, cable and satellite,” Rockefeller spokesman Steven Broderick said.
But Rockefeller isn’t ready to introduce legislation that would give the FCC that power, he said. The appellate court ruling has given him pause to further study the issue, Broderick added.
“Clearly, the 2nd Circuit had some impact,” he said. “He wants to wait and see if we can address the court’s concerns.”
Introduction of a bill will now wait until at least next month, Broderick said.
Martin is expected to reiterate his arguments for giving the commission the power to regulate violence as well as to offer evidence of why it would pass constitutional muster, an aide said.
“The chairman will report to the committee the body of evidence, both in social science and other research, that shows the effect of excessive TV violence on children and what government and industry can do about it,” the aide said.
While government officials lay out their argument for restrictions, Fox Broadcasting Co. entertainment president Peter Liguori will try to dissuade the government officials from even trying.
“Given the inherent difficulty of defining violence and drawing lines about what is appropriate, any attempt to regulate the depiction of violence seemingly would be found unconstitutional,” Liguori said, according to a copy of his testimony. “And it would have a profound chilling effect on the creative community’s ability to produce authentic programming reflective of the world we live in.”
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.
The commission has ruled that language used by Cher and Nicole Richie during the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards was indecent and profane. During the ’02 show, Cher said to the audience: “People have been telling me I’m on the way out every year? So fuck ’em.” In ’03, 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 that winning a Golden Globe was “really, really fucking brilliant.”
In the Bono decision, the commission changed its definition of “fleeting” use of obscenity, deciding that a certain word can be so vile that it runs afoul of the nation’s indecency laws. The court’s decision appears to undo the Bono decision, which has been sitting at the commission on review for some time.
Earlier this month, the New York court criticized the FCC for “failing to articulate a reasoned basis for its change in policy,” adding that it was “doubtful that by merely proffering a reasoned analysis for its new approach to indecency and profanity, the commission can adequately respond to the constitutional and statutory challenges raised by the networks.”
In other closely watched free speech cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has shown a tendency to side with the speakers against the government’s position.
On Monday, the Supreme Court loosened political advertising restrictions aimed at corporate- and union-funded television ads, weakening a key provision of a landmark campaign-finance law.
The court’s 5-4 ruling could become a significant factor in the upcoming presidential primaries, giving interest groups a louder, more influential voice in the closing days of those contests as well as the general election.
The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that an anti-abortion group should have been allowed to air ads during the final two months before the 2004 elections. The law unreasonably limits speech and violates the group’s First Amendment rights, the court said.
“Discussion of issues cannot be suppressed simply because the issues may also be pertinent in an election,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Where the First Amendment is implicated, the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor.”
But the high court also seemed to say that speech has its limits as it also ruled Monday that an Alaskan high school student suspension in 2002 for unfurling a 14-foot banner bearing the words “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” during a parade in support of the Winter Olympics wasn’t a First Amendment violation.
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