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FCC commissioners find Bono remark 'indecent'

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting    

FCC commissioners find Bono remark ‘indecent’

  • The Federal Communications Commission declared U2 singer Bono’s acceptance remarks at the 2003 Golden Globe awards show “indecent,” reversing an October decision.

March 22, 2004 — The Federal Communications Commission last week overruled an October decision of its Enforcement Bureau, saying a phrase uttered by U2 singer Bono live on national television was “indecent.”

The FCC’s five commissioners ruled March 18 that the earlier decision was “not good law.” The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau had said the phrase “fucking brilliant,” which Bono exclaimed upon accepting an award at the 2003 Golden Globe show, was deemed not to be indecent because it was “fleeting” and not uttered “in a sexual context.”

The FCC chose not to fine NBC and/or its broadcast affiliates, which aired the awards show. The FCC did, however, put broadcasters on notice that any future use of the “f-word” would be deemed indecent. Such a ruling could include financial sanctions and “possible license revocations, if appropriate,” the commission said in a press release.

This is the first time the FCC has ruled a word that does not fall under its own definitions of “indecent,” as determined within the context of its use, to be indecent.

FCC rules define indecent speech 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,” according to the FCC’s Web site.

The FCC also said that past decisions which failed to find the word “fuck” indecent because of the context in which it was used were also “not good law.”

“This sends a signal to the industry that the gratuitous use of such vulgar language on broadcast television will not be tolerated,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a statement.

John Eggerton, Washington, D.C. bureau chief and deputy editor of Broadcast & Cable, said the commission’s decision in the Bono incident raises questions.

“The Pacifica Supreme Court case (FCC v. Pacifica, 1978) said fleeting references are protected under the First Amendment, and the FCC has just come out and changed that,” Eggerton said. “It sets a precedent for fining things that [the FCC] just doesn’t like.”

The Enforcement Bureau’s October decision angered conservative family advocacy groups and some politicians. Two House Republicans, Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Texas) proposed a bill Dec. 8 to unconditionally ban eight words and phrases from the airwaves. The “Clear Airwaves Act” would amend the U.S. Code by banning “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “asshole,””cock sucker,” “mother fucker” and “ass hole.” The bill is pending.

The “Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act,” already passed by the House and awaiting Senate approval, calls for a maximum fine increase from $27,500 to $500,000 for violations of broadcast indecency.

“We believe the commission made the right decision in not fining us over the regrettable Bono incident,” NBC said in a statement. “As we’ve previously said, Bono’s utterance was unacceptable and we regret it happened.”

(File No. EB-03-IH-0110) LH

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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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