FCC Reverses Ruling On Bono Profanity, Hits Howard Stern With Maximum Penalty

Commission also warns all broadcast outlets that any future use of the f-word will not be tolerated.

The Federal Communications Commission admonished U2 frontman Bono and hit radio personality Howard Stern with the maximum penalty allowed in a handful of rulings issued on Thursday.

The FCC decried Bono's use of the phrase "f---ing brilliant" during NBC's live 2003 Golden Globes broadcast, saying the remark violated its rules regarding indecency and profanity. The FCC had previously ruled that Bono's speech was not indecent because his use of the f-word was "fleeting and in a non-sexual context." This week's ruling was a response to a complaint lodged by the Parents Television Council.

The commission went on to warn all broadcast outlets that any future use of the f-word will not be tolerated, but stopped short of issuing a fine in connection with Bono's speech.

Meanwhile, Stern and Infinity Broadcasting — which syndicates Stern to markets across the country — did not get off so easy (Infinity is owned by Viacom, which also owns MTV). The FCC issued a proposed forfeiture of $27,500 (the maximum penalty allowed under law) against Infinity for its broadcast of a Stern show from July 21, 2001. Technically not a "fine," an FCC "proposed forfeiture" asks a company to forfeit money for violating FCC regulations. A company has 30 days to challenge a proposed forfeiture, and if the company fails to act within that period of time, the FCC enlists the aid of the Justice Department to collect the requested funds.

The commission targeted a portion of Stern's broadcast that referenced sex and excretory functions. The FCC ruled that the content was "lewd and vulgar, and that it appeared to have been used to pander, titillate and shock."

The forfeiture was levied solely for the broadcast of Stern's show on Detroit's WKRK-FM and came in response to a complaint from a listener in Detroit.

The ruling comes as Stern is in the midst of a very public battle with both the FCC and President George W. Bush's administration. Stern accuses the FCC of following unclear, arbitrary guidelines in determining what material is "offensive," and criticizes Bush for using his office to "push the agenda of the religious right" (see "Does Howard Stern Have More Political Muscle Than Ralph Nader?"). The ruling was handed down just as Congress is weighing legislation that would up the maximum penalty for indecency violations from $27,500 to $500,000 per incident.

Thursday's rulings also included a proposed forfeiture against Clear Channel subsidiary Capstar for two broadcasts deemed to be indecent, and backed up a $7,000 forfeiture against Infinity Broadcasting for a rap concert that was deemed offensive.