Media Fights for Free Speech

Free-speech advocates demand an end to FCC indecency crackdown

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Since Janet Jackson's super Bowl striptease, the Federal Communications Commission has fined broadcasters more than $1.5 million, busted NBC for Bono's accidental use of the f-word and ruled that fart sounds are against the law.

Now, media companies, artists' unions and free-speech advocates are fighting back. A group of twenty-four organizations -- including Fox, Viacom and the Recording Industry Association of America -- filed a petition on April 19th asking the FCC to reconsider its ruling against NBC for broadcasting Bono's comment of "fucking brilliant" at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards.

According to the seventy-page-plus document, the Bono decision reflects a radical shift in policy that is unconstitutional because it limits free speech. "The FCC announced a standard that would allow it to censor all kinds of things -- anything considered blasphemous, coarse or vulgar," says Robert Corn-Revere, counsel for the petitioners. "It puts the commission in the role of regulating taste."

The petition includes several examples of pop culture's retreat from free expression. Rock radio in particular has undergone a major shift: Stations all over the country, the petition notes, are dropping or editing dozens of songs, including the Who's "Who Are You," Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" and John Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane." According to the petition, a Clear Channel programmer combed through the song database for five Denver stations and made changes to everything from Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner" to Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." A spokesman for Clear Channel, which owns 1,200 stations, says, "Local managers make their own programming decisions." Cleveland classic-rock station WNCX 98.5 has yanked Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money," Pink Floyd's "Money" and several other classics.

"It's absurd," says Reed. "It's like being censored by a squirrel. It's beneath me, it's beneath all these artists. It's done by people who are very pious and stupid."

NBC didn't sign on to the petition but filed one of its own the same day. Both filings ask for the FCC to reject its own ruling -- which is unlikely. Legal experts predict that the Bono battle will proceed to court, where it might not be resolved until next year.

In the meantime, Viacom president Mel Karmazin remains the media business's most vocal FCC opponent. In a conference call with Wall Street analysts on April 25th, he said that Viacom will comply with the FCC's new stance while also fighting back. "We are adjusting the programming, we're putting things on delays," he said. "At the same time, we are aggressively going to take the FCC to court if the opportunity presents itself, because we believe what they are doing is not appropriate."

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