Beleaguered best-selling author Salman Rushdie may have rallied broad support among Western nations, but at least some of his work would not qualify as being decent enough to be read over the air under current federal broadcast standards, according to the Pacifica Foundation, a longtime champion of First Amendment rights.
The Los Angeles-based foundation, which operates KPFK-FM (90.7) and four other radio stations, bought a full-page advertisement in the national edition of the New York Times on Monday, soliciting funds for its First Amendment defense fund. In the ad, Pacifica compared the Bush Administration to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran when it comes to censorship.
The ad, which was paid for through the Public Media Center in San Francisco, cost Pacifica less than $10,000 because of its non-profit corporate status, according to David Salniker, Pacifica president and general manager of Pacifica’s flagship station, KPFA-FM in Berkeley. Pacifica’s annual operating budget is about $5 million, but there is no advertising allotment, so the Pacifica board had to vote a special payment for the New York Times ad earlier this month.
“If we were to read Rushdie or other contemporary literature over the air, we would face fines and a jail term,” said David Salniker. “It seems a little hypocritical for this Administration to jump on the First Amendment bandwagon about ‘The Satanic Verses’ when it has this kind of a double standard.”
The United States joined Britain and other Western nations last month in defending Rushdie’s freedom of expression in light of Khomeini’s death sentence, leveled against the Indian-born British novelist for allegedly blaspheming the prophet Mohammed in Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses.”
The thrust of Pacifica’s advertisement is that the same Bush Administration that condemns Khomeini’s extreme form of censorship actually supports 24-hour-a-day censorship on television and radio in this country.
Under a rider that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) attached to an appropriations bill last fall, Congress instructed the Federal Communications Commission to put the 24-hour-a-day ban on “indecent” broadcasting into effect Jan. 27, one week after President Bush was inaugurated. The ban carries penalties of a $10,000 fine and the possibility of two years’ federal imprisonment.
A Washington federal circuit court stayed the ban one day before it was to go into effect, and the three-judge panel has not yet issued a ruling on whether it is constitutional.
A coalition headed by Action for Children’s Television joined Pacifica last year in its fight against the broadcast ban. The coalition includes ABC, CBS, NBC, the Motion Picture Producers Assn., the National Assn. of Broadcasters, National Public Radio and half a dozen other organizations.
To illustrate the potential effects of the Helms ban, KPFK and the other Pacifica stations read from Rushdie’s novels Feb. 27, but purposely censored phrases and words that they thought were explicitly or suggestively sexual.
The self-censorship, according to Salniker, is a direct result of the FCC’s failure to define what constitutes indecent broadcasting. The commission issued a ban against indecency two years ago, censuring Pacifica and two other broadcast organizations for allegedly broadcasting indecent material, but never spelled out what it meant by the term.
When broadcasters asked for specific guidelines as to what constitutes indecency, the commission fell back on an amorphous, 10-year-old federal statutory definition that bans words or pictures of a “sexual or excretory nature.” The commission said that the nation’s 1,200 TV stations and 10,000 radio stations could only broadcast such material between midnight and 6 a.m., when young children would be least likely to hear or see it.
Helms, responding to pressure from such groups as Morality in Media and the American Family Assn., authored a law banning “indecent” broadcasting around the clock.
“That (definition of indecency) still leaves us in limbo,” said Bill Burns, an attorney for Pacifica.
Ironically, he said, the question of broadcast indecency may ultimately find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court next month in the form of an allegedly obscene phone call.
He said a California “dial-a-porn” case that is scheduled to go before the high court April 19 may supersede the Action for Children’s Television challenge to the Helms law before the federal circuit court has an opportunity to render its decision.
In the “dial-a-porn” case, Los Angeles-based Sable Communications Inc. has challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s right to regulate the content of its 976 phone messages. According to Washington attorney Tim Dyk, lead counsel for the Action for Children’s Television coalition, all of the coalition members filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Sable Communications on Monday.
Burns said that even though the Sable case involves censorship of telephone calls and not over-the-air broadcasting, the same indecency question is involved. The U.S. Solicitor General’s Office, which is arguing the government’s case, has invoked the Helms ban on broadcast indecency as an argument against telephone indecency, Burns said.
In the past, the FCC has made provision for exempting literary and artistic works such as James Joyce’s “Ulysses” from the indecency ban, according to a commission spokesman. The spokesman said that such exemptions would probably apply to Rushdie’s fiction as well, but added that the pending status of the legal challenge to the Helms bill precluded the commission from making a decision.