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Ever since Janet Jackson bared her breast during halftime of the Super Bowl, broadcasters have been put on the defensive by Congress, outraged Americans, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This year the FCC has proposed fining broadcasters $1.6 million (more than in the previous 10 years combined) for recent indecency violations. This includes $495,000 against Clear Channel Communications for airing three violations by the foul-mouthed shock jock Howard Stern during a single broadcast carried on six of its stations. The total also includes $755,000 against Clear Channel for disk jockey Bubba the Love Sponge's verbal filth.

Congress is also upping the ante. House lawmakers want to increase the maximum fine from $27,500 to $500,000 per incident. Not surprisingly, the stakes are getting too expensive for some players, who for years have been able to weather smaller-scale complaints and boycotts from concerned citizens. In the spring, the National Association of Broadcasters said it would look at rewriting its voluntary code of conduct. Clear Channel announced it was dropping foul mouths Stern and Bubba.

Predictably, knee-jerk civil libertarians are alarmed, saying broadcasters are not "standing up for the First Amendment." A few media moguls accuse both federal regulators and conservatives in Congress of "trampling" free speech. Give us a break.

The courts have ruled that indecency (which the FCC defines as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities"), while constitutionally permissible, may be restricted to times when children are not likely to be in the ...

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June 2004

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