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Published: Tuesday, 3/1/2005

An indecent proposal

IF CONGRESS is trying to shock and awe television into homogenized timidity with the threat of huge fines for airing objectionable material, it's working.

When a group of frightened ABC affiliates pulled a highly acclaimed World War II drama because it contained violence and profanity - isn't that what war is? - it might have just been the beginning.

What the House of Representatives did recently by hitting the industry where it hurts - in the pocketbook - should worry all citizens incredulous about the lengths government will go to with censorship.

There is a troubling preoccupation among some of the fundamentally intolerant on Capitol Hill to make society adhere to standards that reflect ones they hold to be self-evident.

Their crusades are painfully evident in legislation like Michigan Republican Fred Upton's that drastically increases the maximum fine for indecency, as vaguely defined by the Federal Communications Commission.

The Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly passed the measure giving the FCC new leverage to punish over-the-air television channels and entertainers for, as Mr. Upton put it, "pushing the envelope," as vaguely defined by him.

Under FCC rules TV is prohibited from airing obscene material any time, clarified by the agency as describing sexual conduct "in a patently offensive way" and - this is rich - lacking "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Indecent material, which is also deemed offensive but not as bad as obscene, is barred between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Purveyors of material patently offensive to the puritanical in power will pay plenty. Companies that upset the sense and sensibilities of the FCC will see their maximum fine increased from $32,500 to $500,000.

Similarly, individuals who violate the subjective standards of the FCC will see their maximum penalty rise from $11,000 to $500,000.

The Upton legislation would also allow the FCC to fine individual entertainers without first warning them about content. That has never been done before.

The White House said it strongly supported the House legislation that "will make broadcast television more suitable for family viewing," as defined by the administration.

Amazing how one "wardrobe malfunction" could so motivate Big Brother to put a blanket over everything.

Republicans used to be big advocates of the free market, if not free choice. But now, says New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, "they want the government to decide what is or is not appropriate for the public to watch or listen to."

Want to avoid racy programming? Change the channel, urges Representative Nadler. Watch what your children watch, especially on the often more explicit cable and satellite channels not subject to indecency fines.

But don't allow government to intimidate free speech. Small broadcasters who can't risk fines at the current level are already nixing anything with a hint of controversy. And don't let government vaguely define for all what some deem politically acceptable.

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