PRSA Raises Free Speech Concern Over Indecency Fines
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PRSA Raises Free Speech Concern Over Indecency Fines

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) called on the Federal Communications Commission to rescind its request for authority to increase tenfold the fines the commission could levy on broadcast entities.

Paul Holmes

NEW YORK—The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) called on the Federal Communications Commission to rescind its request for authority to increase tenfold the fines the commission could levy on broadcast entities the Commission deems to have violated nonspecific guidelines on obscenity and indecency.

The association argues that increased fines without specific guidelines could contribute to a serious erosion of free speech and free media guarantees in the U.S. Constitution, and suggested in a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell that the FCC clarify and strengthen the guidelines so broadcasters and their employees know exactly what they can and cannot do.

PRSA president Del Galloway acknowledged that many members of the Society “probably are just as upset as members of Congress and Chairman Powell are” over recent instances of broadcasters and celebrities “pushing the boundaries of decency” with materials that were broadcast on public airwaves.

“But at the end of the day,” he said, “this organization stands solidly behind the First Amendment and its guarantees for free, open and candid expression. And sometimes that means you stand with people or organizations that say and do things that offend you to protect the freedoms of everybody else.”

The FCC request for expanded authority followed on the heels of Janet Jackson’s breast-baring episode during the live Super Bowl halftime broadcast and the decision of Clear Channel Communications to suspend the Howard Stern show.

“The problem is that the FCC never has spelled out what’s permissible and what’s not permissible,” said Reed Bolton Byrum, immediate past president. “‘When in doubt, leave it out’ cannot be an acceptable policy in a democracy that depends on free and open discussion. And, if we start losing small, independent broadcasters because they can’t afford the risk of getting fined on some arbitrary application of a vague standard, all we’ll have left are a few big media companies. And the fewer entities there are, the easier it will be to control them.”

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