Supporters said the higher fines and stricter penalties were necessary to compel wealthy TV and radio broadcast companies to clean up their programs and to help assure parents that their children won’t be exposed to inappropriate material.
It was not immediately clear when the Senate would take up the measure.
The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which passed 389-38, would boost the maximum fine from $32,500 to $500,000 for a broadcast company and from $11,000 to $500,000 for an individual entertainer.
“By significantly increasing fines, they are going to be at a level where they can no longer be ignored,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who introduced the bill. “Parents can rest easy.”
The House bill also would require the Federal Communications Commission to consider revoking a broadcaster’s license after three violations of indecency rules and to act on public complaints within six months. Additionally, the proposal authorizes the FCC to require stations to run “educational” and “informational” programming as penalty for violations.
The measure would allow the FCC to fine an individual entertainer, such as a disc jockey, without first issuing a warning, which is the case now.
The drive to enact tougher indecency penalties has enjoyed broad bipartisan support from lawmakers in the wake of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime performance, in which singer Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed on national television during primetime.
“This is a penalty that makes broadcasters sit up and take notice,” Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said. “This legislation makes great strides in making it safe for families to come back into their living room.”
The minority of House members who opposed the bill raised concerns that allowing the FCC to levy stiffer fines would lead to more self-censorship by broadcasters and entertainers, who find the government’s definition of “indecent” vague and confusing.
Opponents also cited the example of several ABC affiliates that did not air the World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan” last year because of worries that the film’s violence and profanity would lead to fines, even though the movie already had aired on network TV.
“We would put Big Brother in charge of deciding what is art and what is free speech,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. “We would see self- and actual-censorship rise to new and undesirable heights.”
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., argued that parents — not the government — were the best judges of what their children should see and hear, emphasizing that what the government considered indecent may not be deemed as such by another.
“No one knows when one person’s creative work will become another person’s definition of a violation of indecency,” Waxman said.
The Senate in late January introduced a similar bill that would hike indecency fines tenfold to $325,000 per incident, with a $3 million cap for any single act of indecency. Unlike the House measure, the Senate bill does not include a provision on license revocation.
The White House in a statement said it strongly supports legislation that “will make broadcast television and radio more suitable for family viewing.”