PRSA Says Increased FCC Fines without Clear Guidelines Endangers Free Expression
Leaders of the nearly 20,000-member organization of professional communicators instead 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.
"Clearly many of our citizens are fed up with the same widely publicized acts that precipitated your request," the PRSA letter to Powell stated. "But in defending basic constitutional rights, we cannot ignore that the Constitution guarantees rights and privileges equally to all people -- not just to those with whom we agree."
Del Galloway, APR, PRSA president and CEO, 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 requested Congressional authority followed on the heels of widely publicized instances of the live broadcast of questionably indecent, inflammatory or obscene materials, including entertainer Janet Jackson's breast-baring episode during the live Super Bowl halftime broadcast and actions by radio "shock jock" Howard Stern. With members of Congress already under election-year pressures by constituents who see these latest episodes as the final straws in pushing the limits of public decency, the FCC requested authority to impose fines on broadcasters of $275,000 per incidence up to a total of $3 million. The Congressional subcommittee considering the authorizing legislation hauled several prominent broadcasters into a public hearing and berated them. Following those hearings last week, several broadcast entities on their own initiative took action -- tossing Stern off the air in one instance and imposing rigid "zero tolerance" policies for on-air staff that violate FCC guidelines.
Following the FCC action last year modifying regulations on broadcast ownership that many believe will result in concentration of ownership of radio and television stations in the United States in the hands of a few large, powerful organizations, the increased fines would be even more exacerbating, the letter stated. "The possibility of a single fine of $275,000 for violation of vague guidelines could pose too great a risk for small, independent broadcasters to continue operations."
"The problem is that the FCC never has spelled out what's permissible and what's not permissible," said Reed Bolton Byrum, APR, immediate past president of PRSA. "'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." "As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once observed, 'Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself,'" Byrum added.
To underscore the vagueness of the FCC regulations, PRSA pointed to the widely publicized use of the "F" word by rock star Bono in a live broadcast on an awards program. The FCC ruled that was not obscene because it was just an epithet and not a reference to a sexual act and did not impose a fine. In the wake of the recent imbroglio, FCC Chairman Powell says he thinks the commission erred in that decision.
The PRSA said in its letter that it supports the FCC's mandate to protect the public from the broadcast of blatantly inflammatory, seditious and obscene materials and added that it also appreciates the challenging task the agency has in fulfilling that mandate while adhering to First Amendment standards.
"Fulfillment of that mandate, however, must come first in the establishment of clear definitions of offending acts - guidelines established only after full and open discussion and debate with all the publics the FCC serves," PRSA said. "Rest assured that PRSA would enthusiastically apply its full resources to advise and assist the Commission in the establishment of such guidelines."
The Public Relations Society of America (www.prsa.org), based in New York City, is the world's largest organization for public relations professionals helping to advance the profession and the professional. Its nearly 20,000 members, organized into 116 Chapters nationwide, 18 Professional Interest Sections along with Affinity Groups, represent business and industry, counseling firms, independent practitioners, military, government, associations, hospitals, schools, professional services firms and nonprofit organizations.
Source: Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)