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Groups asks FCC to vacate fine against HBCU, Bethune-Cookman University

(September 15, 2009) The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council has filed an amicus letter with the FCC asking that a $9,600 forfeiture order against Bethune-Cookman University be vacated. The letter was filed jointly by the MMTC, NABOB, the NAACP, the Black College Communication Association, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and says the forfeiture imposed on the college over violations at low-power FM WRWS is unlawful.

The FCC issued a forfeiture order in April after an October 2008 inspection by agents from the Tampa field office found that the station was operating an STL transmitter without a license and had no EAS decoder installed. A notice of apparent liability for $18,000 was issued in January, later reduced to $9,600 after Bethune-Cookman responded requesting a reduction or cancellation.

The letter, addressed to acting Enforcement Bureau Chief Suzanne Tetrault and copied to all five FCC commissioners, Media Bureau Chief William Lake, and Chief Diversity Officer Mark Lloyd, says its purpose is to call attention to the "unlawfulness" of the forfeiture order. The order, it says, "neither follows nor even mentions the commission's well-established policy of imposing, in LPFM cases, forfeitures in amounts representing a tiny fraction of the forfeiture leveled against BCU." The FCC order noted that commission policy doesn't reduce forfeitures based on a station's noncommercial status, but, the MMTC says, it "failed to mention a long line of decisions in which forfeiture penalties were dramatically reduced because the station was an LPFM."

Says the letter, "Disregarding the LPFM forfeiture policy was reversible error. Had the bureau considered the LPFM forfeiture policy, the forfeiture would have been at most a few hundred dollars rather than the $9,600 assessed against BCU."

To illustrate the "gravity of [the] error," the letter notes that Bethune-Cookman is a historically black college or university, and says such HBCUs rely on LPFM licenses to be able to train students, and are often in markets where almost no full-power licenses are available. The letter, signed by MMTC Exec. Director David Honig, also cites past discrimination that discouraged minority participation in broadcasting, and says the FCC for decades "allowed commercial broadcasters to continue discriminatory employment practices."

The letter says the $9,600 forfeiture "would further discourage the creation and development of broadcasting programs at HBCUs," and continues, "Based on this forfeiture, these severely underfunded institutions would fear that they could be subjected to heavy fines and legal costs for minor and inadvertent offenses."

Honig writes, "Perhaps, when this case began, some ministerial penalty would have been appropriate -- along the lines of the three-figure forfeiture sums routinely imposed on LPFMs for inadvertent violations. But imposing any forfeiture now would only trivialize the harm done already done by the forfeiture order."

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