Button my lip

Published February 18, 2005 1:07PM (EST)

Let's play a little game here. A United States congressman proclaimed this week: "Today, we are delivering something of real value to American families." Can you guess what he was delivering?

Was it better healthcare for kids? Federal standards to guarantee better childcare for working parents? Full funding for George Bush's under-funded No Child Left Behind?

Well, not exactly. The delivery man in question here is Republican congressman Fred Upton, and what he's delivering are higher fines for any broadcaster or performer who lets an "indecency" slip out onto the airwaves.

It's not just Upton, mind you. The House of Representatives voted 389 to 38 this week in favor of the Broadcast Indecency Act of 2005. As the Washington Post explains, it's a new version of the bill that sailed through the House last year after Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction." The House and the Senate were not able to work out a compromise between competing bills last year; the Broadcast Indecency Act of 2005 is an attempt to try again.

The bill would allow the FCC to fine a broadcaster $500,000 for each instance of indecency -- an increase from the $32,500 fine now permitted. The bill would also increase fines on individual performers from $11,000 to $500,000 per indecency. And, as the Post explains, the bill would impose a sort of potty-mouth three-strikes rule: After a third offense, a broadcaster would face a license revocation hearing.

The Senate will soon take up similar legislation.

NBC-Universal issued a statement saying the prospect of massive fines on "an athlete, entertainer, or any individual being interviewed, for an isolated, emotional outburst or for graphic artistic material such as that in 'Saving Private Ryan,' raises very serious constitutional and free speech issues."

But that view isn't shared by the bill's supporters -- among them, no doubt, the two people who actually complained to the FCC about Paul McCartney's Super Bowl performance this year. Indeed, Lara Mahaney of the Parents Television Council seemed to suggest that mere fines might not be enough: "If Janet Jackson walked into a high school and exposed a nipple, she'd be arrested," Mahaney told The Post. "Why should that be permissible on broadcast television?"

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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