FAN 66.1 (First Amendment News) The Indecency Wars Continue — WDBJ TV opposes $325K fine proposed by FCC

The enormous fine proposed by the FCC is also an extraordinary burden on protected speech. The FCC’s largest base fine for other types of violations by broadcasters is $10,000. — Jeffrey A. Marks, President & General Manager of WDBJ

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Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau, said that the agency’s action “sends a clear signal that there are severe consequences for TV stations that air sexually explicit images when children are likely to be watching.” (Variety, March 23, 2015)

Yesterday lawyers for WDBJ Television filed an Opposition to a FCC Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) against the station. The 55-page opposition was filed by Jack N. Goodman and Robert Corn-Revere. The case is titled In the Matter of WDBJ Television, Inc. (files #s: EB-IHD-14-00016819 & EB-12-IH-1363).

UnknownThe proposed FCC fine stemmed from a July 12, 2012 WDBJ newscast concerning a Roanoke County controversy over a former adult film star who had joined the local volunteer rescue squad. WDBJ covered the story and the dispute over the firing of a female volunteer. Parts of WDBJ’s story were illustrated from materials taken from the Internet, including some from an adult-film website.  “Due to equipment limitations,” Goodman and Corn-Revere argue, “station personnel were unable to see the full screen of the online material, and the eventual broadcast briefly displayed a small image of an erect penis at the extreme margin of the screen. The image appeared for 2.7 seconds during a three minute and ten second story, covered only 1.7 percent of screen at the far right edge, and prompted an immediate response from WDBJ once it became aware of the mishap.”

In response, on March 23, 2015 the FCC issued a NAL and a proposed fine of $325,000 — the maximum amount permissible under the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act.

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said, “NAB is disappointed with today’s remarkably punitive indecency fine proposed against WDBJ. Schurz Communications apologized for the fleeting image, which was clearly unintended. This unprecedented fine against a family-owned broadcaster with a demonstrated commitment to serving communities is wholly unwarranted.”  (VarietyMarch 23, 2015)

WDBJ’s lawyers contend that the FCC’s NAL “rests on incorrect factual premises” and that the Commission “misapplied its indecency standard to the WDBJ newscast.” As to the latter point, they make three basic arguments:

  1. “The newscast was not graphic and explicit under Commission precedent”
  2. “The broadcast did not dwell on or repeat sexual material,” and
  3. “The broadcast did not seek to pander or titillate.”
Jack N. Goodman

Jack N. Goodman

Goodman and Corn-Revere also maintain that the FCC “lacks a constitutionally sound test for indecency.” In this regard, they offer three basic arguments:

  1. “The Supreme Court neither upheld nor ratified the FCC’s indecency policy” (“The constitutional questions left open in Fox must be addressed.”)
  2. “Devising a constitutional policy to regulate broadcast indecency requires great restraint” (The FCC must adhere to the First Amendment” and “Pacifica’s restrained enforcement approach is constitutionally required.”) and
  3. “As applied to WDBJ, the proposed fine violates the First Amendment.”
Robert Corn-Revere

Robert Corn-Revere

Additionally, Goodman and Corn-Revere contend that the FCC’s NAL “articulates an erroneous and unconstitutional standard for willfulness. On this point they contend that the FCC’s NAL is unlawful insofar as it “proposes to penalize WDBJ for an alleged indecency violation that was neither ‘willful” nor ‘repeated,’ as required by 47 U.S.C.  503 (b)(1).”

Finally, they argue that even if the Commission “could find that WDBJ violated the indecency policy, the proposed [fine] should be vastly reduced.” Here Goodman and Corn-Revere maintain that the FCC’s NAL “sets out various reasons — many of which are incorrect — for a [maximum fine], but utterly fails to explain why it is appropriate to impose a [fine] more than forty-six times the base amount for the inadvertent inclusion in a news program of a depiction of a sexual organ for less than three seconds.” As for the enhanced fines allowed for under the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, they argue that “Congress did not attempt to establish [the $325,000 fine] as the minimum or even the expected [fine], or to indicate any intent to override the Commission’s normal decision with respect to the amount of a [fine] in any particular case.”

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1 Response

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    Not saying the fine is warranted, but does it strike anybody else that “equipment limitations” is likely just a euphemism for “Hey, we didn’t look too closely at the material, and overlooked it.”