College threatens legal action over $15,000 FCC indecency fine

CALIFORNIA– A television station licensed through the San Mateo CountyCommunity College District could be punished for airing a MartinScorsese-produced blues documentary if the Federal Communications Commission hasits way.

The FCC fined the KCSM-TV PBS station $15,000 afterreceiving a complaint that the documentary contained ”numerous ‘obscenities,’…in violation of the [FCC’s] rules restrictingthe broadcast of indecent material,” according to the FCC’sruling.

”TheBlues: Godfathers and Sons,” which was aired on March, 11, 2004, from 8 to10 p.m., included the words ”fuck” and ”shit” numeroustimes throughout the documentary, according to the ruling.

Thecommunity college formally appealed the FCC’s ruling in early May statingthat if the FCC does not reverse its decision they will seek legal action, saidDave Mandelkern, president of the San Mateo County Community College Districtboard of trustees.

”We’re an educational televisionstation,” Mandelkern said. ”We’re airing an educationaldocumentary as via a highly acclaimed producer and it’s basically beingtreated as if it were a piece of pornography.”

Mandelkern saidthe community college is ready to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court ifnecessary.

”We will appeal this to federal court andwe’ll continue to go through the appeals court process,” Mandelkernsaid. ”We have said as a district board, at this point, our intention isthat we will take this to the Supreme Court. If we cave on this my personalopinion is…how can you say, with a straight face, that we believe in academicfreedom and intellectual expression on our campuses?” hesaid.

One portion of the appeal refers to the ABC TelevisionNetwork’s airing of the film ”Saving Private Ryan,” whichincludes language similar to that in the blues documentary, KCSM General ManagerMarilyn Lawrence said. The World War II drama was shown at 8 p.m. in 2004without receiving any repercussions from the FCC, Lawrencesaid.

”[The FCC’s] rational is that [‘SavingPrivate Ryan’] is fictional and was created by a screenwriter andthat’s OK because it is a dramatic interpretation, but real people sayingthe same words, in their own words, that’s obscene,” Mandelkernsaid.

However the FCC maintained in the ruling it issued that,

”…this case is unlike ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ where weconcluded that deleting offensive words ‘would have altered the nature ofthe artistic work and diminished the power, realism and immediacy of the filmexperience for viewers.”’

The FCC also stated that thestation violated the ”Golden Globe Awards Order” that was put inplace in 2004 after U2 front man Bono said ”fuck” during a livebroadcast of the Golden Globe Awards. The order states that, ”the’f’ word meets the first prong of the indecencytest.”

However, Lawrence noted that KCSM aired the documentarybefore the Bono incident took place and added that the station should not beheld accountable to standards that, it appears, are being appliedretroactively.

Meanwhile, the fine has caught the attention ofScorsese who, in early May, sent a letter to the FCC in which he stated that hehas ”deep concern over the adverse impact that the FCC’s actionswill have on the creative process generally,” according to anarticle in Inside Higher Ed,an online education news source.

Scorsese is not the only outsiderwho is upset with the FCC’s decision. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelsteinissued astatementin which he expressed his discouragement with the fine.

”It isclear from a common sense viewing of the program that coarse language is a partof the culture of the individuals being portrayed,” according toAdelstein’s statement. ”To accurately reflect their viewpoint andemotions about blues music requires airing of certain material that, ifprohibited, would undercut the ability of the filmmaker to convey the reality ofthe subject of the documentary.”

The station originally airedthe documentary in March 2004. In August, the station received a notice that acomplaint had been filed and was asked to submit ”their side of thestory,” Lawrence said.

KCSM did not hear from the FCC againuntil November 2005, when it asked the station to resend some documentsregarding the fine. In early 2006, the station was notified that a fine had beenlevied, she said.

KCSM has not previously had any problems with theFCC, but receiving the fine has affected the station, Lawrencesaid.

”I would never air the ‘f’ or ‘s’ word now before 10 p.m.,” she said.