Redstone hits FCC indecency rules

Says they're 'creating a lot of fear'

WASHINGTON -- In the most blatant terms yet expressed by a top media executive, Viacom and CBS executive chairman Sumner Redstone criticized the FCC's crackdown on indecent speech Monday, accusing the commission of letting the tail wag the dog.

In his keynote address to First Amendment think tank the Media Institute, Redstone blamed the commission for allowing a few people to hijack the commission's agenda.

"Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a world where, increasingly and alarmingly, a couple thousand form complaints from people condemning shows that they have never watched can result in an indecency fine 10 times higher than an year ago," he said, according to a copy of his remarks provided by Viacom. "In a world where these same form complaints can lead regulators to dictate business models that ultimately do more harm than good. And yes, in a world where entertainment and news executives, musicians and artists are living in a great deal of fear."

Redstone made his remarks after accepting the nonprofit organization's Freedom of Speech Award. FCC data show that the lion's share of indecency complaints lodged at the agency are generated by two groups: the Parents Television Council and the American Family Assn.

CBS is in a pitched legal battle with the commission over some programming that the panel has declared indecent, including the Janet Jackson Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction," an episode of "Without a Trace" and a segment of "The Early Show." The FCC did not issue a fine in the "Early Show" incident, saying the show aired before the commission changed its policy on so-called "fleeting expletives."

The FCC proposed a $550,000 fine for a flash of Jackson's breast during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show and a $3.3 million proposed fine for a "Trace" episode that had a teenage rape scene as a central plot element.

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 between 10 p.m.-6 a.m.

Under a new law approved by Congress and signed by President Bush, broadcasters face fines up to $325,000 per violation, increased from an old maximum of $32,500.

Redstone told the audience that he was proud of most of the shows CBS airs and that attacks on "CSI," MTV, the documentary "9/11" and Paramount and DreamWorks' "Saving Private Ryan" were unwarranted because the marketplace is the ultimate arbiter of speech.

"If the public is not happy with a particular program, then they won't watch it, and it will go off air," he said. "Government censorship -- and by this I mean imposing any kind of burden or penalty on those who publish protected speech -- circumvents this process. This is particularly pernicious not only because it is prohibited by the Constitution but also because it can be abused by the government."

High-handed government interference in a constitutionally protected enterprise puts the nation at risk, Redstone warned.

"Give the government the tools to punish those it doesn't like or silence what it doesn't want to hear, and you undermine democracy," he said. "Give people the tools to choose what they see and hear, and you enhance democracy."