LOS ANGELES, April 12 (UPI) -- A Virginia-based organization, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, has included the Federal Communications Commission and the Motion Picture Association of America's film ratings board on this year's list of "winners" of the Jefferson Muzzle award -- given annually to recognize those who would restrict free speech.
The Jefferson Center inaugurated the Jefferson Muzzle award in 1992. Presented on or near Thomas Jefferson's birthday -- April 13 -- the award is intended to draw attention to "abridgments of free speech and press" and to promote "an appreciation for those tenets of the First Amendment."
The FCC was singled out for its 2004 crackdown on broadcast indecency, largely fueled by public outrage over the televised exposure of singer Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime show.
The center pointed out that FCC Chairman Michael Powell testified on Capitol Hill that the incident was "a new low" for prime time TV, and the commission subsequently fined CBS $550,000 for violating decency standards with the broadcast.
"While many believe the fine should have been greater (although when announced it was the largest ever issued)," said the center, "it is worth noting that Ms. Jackson's exposed breast was on air for less than half of a second (not counting the numerous times it was shown later by television news programs)."
The FCC went on to hit other broadcasters with fines for indecency violations -- including a $1.2 million fine against Fox TV for a risqué episode of the reality series "Married by America." The center noted that the fine came 18 months after the series had been taken off the air for low ratings -- and observed that the FCC claimed it had received 159 complaining letters about the telecast. In presenting the FCC with a Jefferson Muzzle, the center cited a Time magazine report, based on a Freedom of Information request, that 23 people actually sent letters to the FCC, and 21 of them used a form.
"In other words," said the citation, "three people composing letters of complaint precipitated a seven-digit fine."
The center said the FCC has escalated sanctions on broadcasting indecent material, but has done "little to define" indecency.
"Although Congress long ago gave the FCC power to regulate 'indecent' material on licensed stations, and the Supreme Court found that authority consistent with broadcasters' First Amendment rights," said the center, "the Commission has recently exercised its authority in a manner that far exceeds previous regulation levels and has created more confusion as to what constitutes 'indecency' and thereby earns a 2005 Jefferson Muzzle."
In choosing to present a Jefferson Muzzle to the movie ratings board, the Jefferson Center focused on the decision to award an NC-17 rating to Paramount Pictures' "Team America" -- a satire by Trey Parker and Matt Stone ("South Park") that used puppets instead of live actors to lambaste both pro-war and anti-war politics. The rating was awarded not because of the film's ample violence or generous helping of vulgar language -- but for a sex scene between two puppets.
The center cited "Team America" producer Scott Rudin in characterizing the decision as silly.
"Our characters are made of wood and have no genitalia," said Rudin. "If the puppets did to each other what we show them doing, all they'd get is splinters."
Ratings decisions are made by the Classification and Rating Administration -- which was formed by the MPAA and the National Association of Theater Owners.
The Jefferson Center conceded that CARA has the right to apply any rating it wants to a movie, and that film distributors are not obligated to submit movies to the ratings board. It also acknowledged the MPAA argument that without the CARA system, the government might try to impose more restrictive controls on movies.
"Indeed, it is to MPAA's credit that it often has been at the forefront in defeating local, state, and even federal government efforts to regulate the content of movies," said the center.
At the same time, the center said CARA wields power over movie content. The high cost of movie production usually necessitates the widest possible distribution, but most commercial theaters will not exhibit unrated movies, and most newspaper and TV outlets still refuse to carry ads for unrated product.
"In the case of 'Team America,' the filmmakers had little choice but to bowdlerize their own creation," said the center. "The two submitted nine increasingly sanitized versions of the offending scene before CARA granted them an R rating."
This year's list of Jefferson Muzzle award "winners" also included the Democratic and Republican parties for regulating speech by protestors at the 2004 nominating conventions, and the U.S. Marshals Service for forcing radio reporters to erase an audio tape they had made of a speech by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The center also "honored" the Virginia House of Delegates for passing a bill to require public libraries to install content filtering software on every library computer with Internet access, and for passing another bill that would outlaw low-riding pants that expose wearer's underwear.
Robert M. O'Neil, director of the center based in Charlottesville and a law professor at the University of Virginia, told United Press International the threat to free speech in the United States tends to run in cycles.
"In some areas speech is freer today that it was before," he said. "The protection of expression on the Internet, for example, is quite striking. Protection of free speech in advertising was unknown three decades ago."
However, he said there are other areas in which policies have been tightened or restrictions on speech have been intensified.
"Wait long enough and, in areas where you're troubled by restrictions on speech, things may improve," he said. "It doesn't always happen, but often that does tend to be the case."
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