Brownback's push for tougher FCC defeated


WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday turned back Sen. Sam Brownback's attempt to strengthen the government's hand regulating content.

The Kansas Republican, one of Congress' most conservative members and a GOP presidential hopeful, attempted to get a pair of anti-content amendments tacked on to a government spending bill but could not muster enough votes on the committee to win.

One of the amendments would restore the FCC's power to fine broadcasters for a slip of the tongue, while the other would allow the commission to regulate violent content like it does indecent speech.

Appropriations Committee chairman Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., asked Brownback to withdraw the amendments and bring them up on the floor. Brownback refused, asking for a voice vote on the indecency measure, only to have it fail. He then withdrew the amendment on violent content.

While Brownback was turned back by the committee, it doesn't spell the end for the congressional push to tighten controls on TV content. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, wrote to Brownback and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., telling them his committee was the appropriate place for the legislation telling them, "our members are aggressively preparing bipartisan legislation to address these issues in a manner that will withstand constitutional scrutiny."

It is unclear when the Commerce Committee will produce a bill. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., had planned to introduce a bill June 26 but changed his mind after the court ruling rejected the FCC's new indecency rules.

The federal appeals court in New York tossed out a key FCC indecency ruling that said a slip of tongue gets broadcasters a fine for indecency, telling the commission it failed to give a good reason for its decision and couldn't likely find a good reason if it had to. Under the rule the court rejected, 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.

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.