Opinion: Ruling against halftime-show fine is a slap in the face to parents

Recently, three judges in Philadelphia who sit on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl peep show wasn’t indecent and didn’t merit the $550,000 Federal Communications Commission fine that was levied against CBS.

I can tell you for a fact that my reaction was quite different when it happened. We were having a Super Bowl party with our closest friends and about 15 kids. Everyone was excited about the halftime show since it featured my cousin, Justin Timberlake. 

Then all of a sudden, right there in front of 90 million people — my guests and our children included — was Janet Jackson’s bare breast. Call it a “wardrobe malfunction” if you want; I call it intentional and offensive. Personally, I was deeply embarrassed and shocked.

Countless parents just like me took the time to demand action from members of Congress, the FCC, CBS and even Super Bowl sponsors. Our pleas for consequences in the form of a tape delay and meaningful indecency fine were met with action. 

The FCC stepped up, imposing a record-setting total fine of $550,000 against 27 CBS affiliates. A policy requiring a tape delay for live events was set in stone one week after the Super Bowl aired. Following the incident, Congress voted and passed a law increasing maximum indecency fines from a mere $32,500 to $325,000 per incident — a drastic improvement.

Parents across the country were thrilled — their voices had been heard. Unfortunately, the reasonable actions taken by the FCC to express the will of the American people were fought tooth and nail by CBS.

After CBS’ “sincere” apologies for the incident, the network promptly decided to skirt the FCC fine, even though it uses the public airwaves for free in exchange for agreeing to obey the indecency law.

In actuality, the half-million-dollar fine didn’t amount to much more than a slap on the wrist for CBS.

As if the incident itself wasn’t maddening enough, parents have just been delivered another slap in the face — this time by a court.

The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals recently threw out the fine, saying it wasn’t applicable because the FCC changed its course of only issuing fines for incidents that are “so pervasive as to amount to ‘shock treatment’ for the audience.”

Maybe the judges missed the Super Bowl that year. Maybe they weren’t hosting a party with several children and their closest friends. And no, they weren’t treated to the personal embarrassment that my family felt since we share Justin’s last name. But sheer shock is exactly what parents felt.

Another one of the most ludicrous aspects of the ruling was the judges’ claim that there was not enough outrage after the Janet Jackson flash to warrant the FCC fine.   

This ruling not only casts doubt on any and all accountability in the entertainment media, but also calls into question the community decency standards and moral fabric of our country. It’s time that the countless parents who cared back then remember why they can’t give up the fight now.

Debra Timberlake is the Parents Television Council San Francisco Bay Area Chapter Director.

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