House Votes to Increase Indecency Fines

The House of Representatives have upped the ante in the War on Naughty Words by voting to increase the maximum fine that the FCC can attach to a single act of indecency.

Congress gave notice to broadcasters on Wednesday that they would pay dearly for showing material like Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” passing legislation that would multiply indecency fines 10 times.

The 379-35 House vote on the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act sends the bill to President Bush for his signature. The bill, which the Senate has passed, increases the top indecency fine that the Federal Communications Commission can levy to $325,000 for each incident, from $32,500.

Mr. Bush said he looked forward to signing the legislation into law. “This legislation will make television and radio more family-friendly by allowing the F.C.C. to impose stiffer fines on broadcasters who air obscene or indecent programming,” he said in a statement.

It goes without saying, at least in my mind, that such an egregious fine for an act of indecency is absolutely absurd. It’s made even more so when you consider that there is no real definition of “indecent”–it is, de facto, whatever the F.C.C. decides it is.

Even beyond the obvious free speech issues, though, is the fact that this legislation, if it passes which has already passed the Senate, is probably going to be the death knell for small, independent TV and radio stations. Most such stations are already stretched thin, budget-wise. Now they’re faced with the possibility of being smacked with a $325,000 fine if one person accidently slips up on the air and drops the f-bomb. That’s going to make any potential investor shy away, and owners of such stations can hardly be blamed if they decide to close up shop rather than face that kind of legal uncertainty.

Stations owned by larger media corporations, on the other hand, aren’t likely to be too much affected one way or the other, since they can (a) afford the fines and (b) afford to hire lawyers to get the fines knocked down and settled out.

Of course, the real winners here are cable TV and satellite and internet radio, which aren’t regulated by the F.C.C. for indecency at all. They’ll likely become even more popular if regular radio and TV stations end up watering down content in order to avoid fights with the F.C.C.

I don’t know this for certain, but I’m pretty sure that an HBO Executive gets his wings every time a network TV show is slapped with an indecency fine.

UPDATE: As commenter Boyd noted, this bill has already passed the Senate, so this is going to be the law of the land once Bush signs it.

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Boyd says:

    Alex, the article you quoted said that the Senate already passed the bill, so it’s only waiting for the President to sign it, which he’s stated he’ll do.

  2. Alex Knapp says:


    Thanks. I corrected the article accordingly. That’ll teach me to post in the middle of the night after a nice glass of Scotch…