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

CALIFORNIA -- A television station licensed through the San Mateo County Community College District could be punished for airing a Martin Scorsese-produced blues documentary if the Federal Communications Commission has its way.

The FCC fined the KCSM-TV PBS station $15,000 after receiving a complaint that the documentary contained ''numerous 'obscenities,' violation of the [FCC's] rules restricting the broadcast of indecent material,'' according to the FCC's ruling.

''The Blues: Godfathers and Sons,'' which was aired on March, 11, 2004, from 8 to 10 p.m., included the words ''fuck'' and ''shit'' numerous times throughout the documentary, according to the ruling.

The community college formally appealed the FCC's ruling in early May stating that if the FCC does not reverse its decision they will seek legal action, said Dave Mandelkern, president of the San Mateo County Community College District board of trustees.

''We're an educational television station,'' Mandelkern said. ''We're airing an educational documentary as via a highly acclaimed producer and it's basically being treated as if it were a piece of pornography.''

Mandelkern said the community college is ready to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

''We will appeal this to federal court and we'll continue to go through the appeals court process,'' Mandelkern said. ''We have said as a district board, at this point, our intention is that we will take this to the Supreme Court. If we cave on this my personal opinion can you say, with a straight face, that we believe in academic freedom and intellectual expression on our campuses?'' he said.

One portion of the appeal refers to the ABC Television Network's airing of the film ''Saving Private Ryan,'' which includes language similar to that in the blues documentary, KCSM General Manager Marilyn Lawrence said. The World War II drama was shown at 8 p.m. in 2004 without receiving any repercussions from the FCC, Lawrence said.

''[The FCC's] rational is that ['Saving Private Ryan'] is fictional and was created by a screenwriter and that's OK because it is a dramatic interpretation, but real people saying the same words, in their own words, that's obscene,'' Mandelkern said.

However the FCC maintained in the ruling it issued that,

''...this case is unlike 'Saving Private Ryan,' where we concluded that deleting offensive words 'would have altered the nature of the artistic work and diminished the power, realism and immediacy of the film experience for viewers.'''

The FCC also stated that the station violated the ''Golden Globe Awards Order'' that was put in place in 2004 after U2 front man Bono said ''fuck'' during a live broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards. The order states that, ''the 'f' word meets the first prong of the indecency test.''

However, Lawrence noted that KCSM aired the documentary before the Bono incident took place and added that the station should not be held accountable to standards that, it appears, are being applied retroactively.

Meanwhile, the fine has caught the attention of Scorsese who, in early May, sent a letter to the FCC in which he stated that he has ''deep concern over the adverse impact that the FCC's actions will have on the creative process generally,'' according to an article in Inside Higher Ed, an online education news source.

Scorsese is not the only outsider who is upset with the FCC's decision. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein issued a statement in which he expressed his discouragement with the fine.

''It is clear from a common sense viewing of the program that coarse language is a part of the culture of the individuals being portrayed,'' according to Adelstein's statement. ''To accurately reflect their viewpoint and emotions about blues music requires airing of certain material that, if prohibited, would undercut the ability of the filmmaker to convey the reality of the subject of the documentary.''

The station originally aired the documentary in March 2004. In August, the station received a notice that a complaint had been filed and was asked to submit ''their side of the story,'' Lawrence said.

KCSM did not hear from the FCC again until November 2005, when it asked the station to resend some documents regarding the fine. In early 2006, the station was notified that a fine had been levied, she said.

KCSM has not previously had any problems with the FCC, but receiving the fine has affected the station, Lawrence said.

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

California, KCSM-TV, news, San Mateo County Community College District