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US radio fined for 'indecency'

WASHINGTON - Gross indecency on the airwaves is part of America's first free-speech birthright, but from now on it may be very costly, writes Rupert Cornwell.

That is the message of a record dollars 600,000 ( pounds 385,000) fine being imposed on the company that employs Howard Stern, arguably the world's filthiest radio talkshow host. Mr Stern is a shaggy-haired provocateur who has parlayed his talents at discussing genitalia, homosexuals, masturbation and defecation into a dollars 2m annual salary from the Infinity Broadcasting Corporation. Now he has a new distinction: symbol of a national row over government censorship.

After months of conflict between self-appointed guardians of public morality and the no less vociferous defenders of the First Amendment, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has finally acted. Infinity is being asked to pay the largest-ever fine for violating the 'indecency' laws that the FCC has been trying since 1987 to impose on the American media.

By a four-to-one margin the FCC's board rejected a far tougher proposal from its chairman, Alfred Sikes, that would have hit Infinity where it really hurts - by blocking a dollars 100m bid to buy three more radio stations in Boston, Chicago and Atlanta. In doing so, it has ended up by pleasing no one.

For Mr Sikes and outraged conservatives in Congress and elsewhere, the final verdict goes nowhere near far enough to protect the supposedly tender ears of American children. For libertarians, however, this encroachment by the FCC is an infringement of every citizen's constitutional right to free speech.