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AFTRA Petitions Senate

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The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) continues to challenge Congress' efforts to place heavy fines for indecency on broadcasters and on-air artists. The union considers such legislation unconstitutional.

AFTRA recently announced that, in just a matter of days, nearly 1,500 signatures and letters had poured into the union in opposition to the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act (S. 2056), and that the number of signatures "continues to grow. Those initial signatures were sent to Senate members today," the union said last Thurs., April 1.

Rebecca Rhine, AFTRA's assistant national executive director for public policy and strategic planning, said in a written statement, "This initial response, overwhelming for such a short period of time, confirms that serious concerns exist among performers for fining individuals for corporate decisions. The focus ought to be on how media consolidation creates fewer choices for the public and fewer outlets for diverse programming. It is clear that a half-million-dollar fine will result in a chilling effect on artistic freedom."

The petition to senators says of the legislation, "its standards are vague and its penalties are both excessive and misdirected. We are seriously concerned that this legislation represents an unconstitutional threat to the First Amendment and would have an immediate and significant chilling effect on artistic freedom. As evidenced by recent events, the definition of indecency is an amorphous, moving target."

AFTRA leaders in mid-March wrote to senators that two provisions of the bill "represent particularly egregious assaults on freedom of expression."

The first eliminates due-process protections of the current FCC regulation "by eliminating the requirement that the performer be given a warning and opportunity to hearing before forfeiture." The second involves a 500% increase in the fine individuals must pay, a rise from $11,000 to $500,000, "for an initial indecency violation, without any regard for ability to pay. Incredibly, this amount is almost double the fine that can be levied against a corporation that holds a broadcast license ($275,000)," AFTRA leaders complained.

S. 2056's purpose, according to the bill, is "to increase the penalties for violations by television and radio broadcasters of the prohibitions against transmission of obscene, indecent, and profane language." The bill calls for a fine not to exceed $275,000 for a single violation and fines not to exceed a total of $3 million for a continuing violation.

A similar bill, HR. 3717, has been approved by the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate. That legislation calls for a maximum $500,000 fine. If the Senate approves its version, a conference committee will probably work out compromise legislation.

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have used singer Janet Jackson's recent breast-exposure incident at halftime of the Super Bowl to push vastly higher fines for on-air indecency. Their actions have resulted in knee-jerk responses from broadcasters, including the firing of noted on-air talents Howard Stern and Todd Clem.

Broadcasters Act

Last week, the executive committee of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) announced plans to form a Task Force on Responsible Programming. The announcement followed an industry programming summit on Wednesday. The task force will review options including possibly implementing a NAB code of conduct.

NAB's executive committee indicated it will move quickly to appoint task-force members who will be inclusive of the "entire broadcast industry." The first meeting of the task force will be held in Las Vegas in connection with NAB2004, the industry's annual convention, expected to attract more than 90,000 attendees. The convention runs April 17-22.

"Broadcasters are committed to a plan of voluntary action to deal with the issue of responsible programming," said NAB President and CEO Edward O. Fritts. "Given the serious First Amendment concerns surrounding issues related to program content, it is our strong belief that voluntary industry initiatives are far preferable to government regulation."

Back Stage contacted NAB's communications office in Washington, D.C. on Monday to see if an AFTRA representative would be included in the all-industry task force. A spokesperson said she would check and try to get back with information, but had not called back by press time Tuesday.

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