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FCC Measures 'Repressive' Says Strossen in Horatio Kellar Lecture

APRIL 20, 2009--Documentaries on everything from blues musicians to firefighters watching the World Trade Towers collapse have been canceled in the wake of the FCC's recent censorship activities, said Nadine Strossen in her Horatio Ellsworth Kellar Distinguished Visitors lecture, "Current Challenges to Free Speech," at the Law School April 14, 2009.

"In the past five years we have seen dramatic new crackdowns on what's called 'indecency in broadcast' in a continuing response to the infamous wardrobe malfunction at the televised 2004 Super Bowl show," she said. In 2004 alone, the FCC has imposed more penalties than it had in its entire history up to that point, she noted.

And the fines aren't just a slap on the wrist: They can reach $325,000 per forbidden word. "The FCC has imposed record-breaking fines on broadcasters, even for the isolated, fleeting, spontaneous use of even a single four-letter word in a clearly nonsexual context," Strossen said.

The possibility of incurring huge fines has led to extreme self-censorship, including among major networks. She told of a radio station cancelling readings to the blind because of language in the text and of a political candidate being barred from debating because on a previous occasion he had lost his temper and uttered a four-letter word. The overreaction has gone so far that "it's amusing but really is no laughing matter," said Strossen.

The former President of the ACLU, a New York Law School Professor and long-time champion of free speech, has had her own experiences with censorship. Her book Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights was called "harmful" by a Pennsylvania newspaper, and a minister recommended that people remove it from their homes, along with other "ungodly and demonic books." (The book's title, Strossen said, was chosen by the publisher.)

The First Amendment free-speech clause made no exception regarding sexually oriented expression, Strossen said, yet it always has been the "most embattled expression in our society." The Supreme Court is now considering the government's power to regulate indecent broadcast expression. This is the first time the Court has revisited the issue since 1978, Strossen noted, and she is hopeful that it will support the principles of free speech laid down by the Founding Fathers.

During her visit to the area, Strossen was interviewed on Twin Cities Public Radio's "Midmorning" show about current civil liberties issues. She also talked about her experiences on the debate team while a student at Hopkins High School and how the skills she learned contributed to her career.

Strossen's radio interview can be heard at http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/04/14/midmorning2.

Her lecture at the Law School can be viewed at http://www.law.umn.edu/cle/08_09lectureseries.html.

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