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NAB, RTDNA to FCC: Rescind WDBJ broadcast indecency fine [updated]

The National Association of Broadcasters and the Radio and Television Digital News Association came to the defense of a station in Roanoke that is facing a record broadcast indecency fine by the Federal Communications Commission.

Under the FCC’s new, aggressive enforcement chief Travis LeBlanc, the agency in March announced its intent to fine WDBJ-TV $325,000 for airing a fleeting indecent image in a news story. If the FCC goes ahead with the enforcement action, it would be the largest indecent fine ever levied against a station for a single incident and the first broadcast indecency fine in seven years.

The NAB and RTDNA argue that not only is the fine punitive and legally indefensible, it also is an “affront to the First Amendment values that undoubtedly will further chill broadcast speech,” the groups said in comments filed with the FCC on Tuesday.

The offending image aired on WDBJ’s evening newscast for 2.7 seconds in a corner of the TV screen occupying 1.7 percent of the area, according to the document.

“Levying the maximum possible fine under the law in a case where the broadcast station indisputably did not purposefully air the image at issue is tantamount to imposing a sentence of life imprisonment for petty theft,” NAB and RTDNA wrote.

The FCC has perpetually been in and out of court over its broadcast indecency policy, and this latest action is also likely to see the inside of a courtroom in a case that could rival the infamous Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction.

In a statement, LeBlanc defended the fine:  “Our action here sends a clear signal that there are severe consequences for TV stations that air sexually explicit images when children are likely to be watching,” he said.

LeBlanc’s intent to make an example of enforcement cases, has caused an uproar in the broadcasting business, especially since the last word on the FCC indecency enforcement was that the agency would focus only on “egregious” cases, a still undefined policy.

“The commission’s indecency policies have never been approved by any reviewing court, and the commission has – for over two years – taken no action in a proceeding launched to examine its ‘broadcast indecency policy and enforcement to ensure that they are fully consistent with vital First Amendment principles.’” the groups wrote.

WDBJ’s owner, Schurz Communications, is also fighting the action.