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Ensign Announces Deal to Raise Cap on Indecency Violations, Set Penalties for Performers

Oct 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In a fast about-face, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., late Tuesday announced that he and other leading lawmakers had cut a major legislative deal to raise the cap on indecency fines to $500,000-and clear the way for the Federal Communications Commission to fine on-air performers for off-color utterances.

An aide to the senator said the new indecency rules would replace a provision in a pending Department of Defense authorization bill that would have raised the cap from $32,500 to $275,000. The existing provision does not include language encouraging fines for performers.

In addition, the new agreement-which the aide said was also approved by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas-would ax controversial provisions in the Pentagon bill that would extend indecency prohibitions to violent broadcast and cable programming and stymie FCC efforts to relax agency media ownership rules.

Sen. Ensign’s announcement came just hours after the watchdog Parents Television Council sounded an alarm to its members and released a Sept. 30 letter in which Sen. Ensign urged leaders on the Senate Armed Services Committee to strip all of the media-related provisions from the Pentagon bill.

“I am disappointed that one lawmaker-Nevada Senator John Ensign-has taken it upon himself to try to remove the indecency provision from this bill,” L. Brent Bozell, PTC president, said in a statement.

Late Tuesday afternoon, an aide said Sen. Ensign has always been a strong opponent of indecency. According to the aide, the letter, which was supposed to be confidential, had been intended to make clear that the senator preferred that the Pentagon bill stick to defense issues. Said the aide of the senator’s subsequent turnabout: “He hoped we could do it [indecency regulations] somewhere else. But unfortunately, [the Pentagon bill] looks like our only opportunity.”

Sen. Ensign in the letter urged Senate leaders to strip all of the media-related provisions out of the Pentagon bill on grounds that they would “add unnecessary contention that will likely slow or disrupt the work” of the legislative conference members assigned to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the Pentagon bill.

In a press release, Sen. Ensign’s office said the new legislative agreement also sets timelines for FCC action on indecency complaints, requires the FCC to report annually to Congress on its indecency efforts and calls for the National Association of Broadcasters to establish a family-viewing policy.

“Parents should be able to watch prime-time television and events like the Super Bowl without fear that their children will be subjected to indecent material,” Sen. Ensign said in a statement.

In its e-mail alert earlier today, PTC said it urgently needed its members to lobby their lawmakers. “We’ve come too far in our fight to clean up the broadcast airwaves and impose meaningful fines on those who would use those airwaves to poison our children’s minds with smut and vulgarity to give up now,” the PTC alert said. “The vote may comes as quickly as today. Please don’t delay.”

The new legislative deal must be approved by the Pentagon bill’s conference committee.