Liberals Aim to Resurrect So-Called "Fairness Doctrine" to Silence Conservative Voices
But Rep. Mike Pence's Broadcaster Freedom Act Will Protect Against Censorship of Airwaves
Although the forces of free speech secured a limited victory in this week's Wisconsin Right to Life decision, the tentacles of liberal censorship remain furiously busy.
Congressional leaders, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senator Dick Durbin (D - Illinois) and Senator John Kerry (D - Massachusetts), are calling to reinstate the federal communications abomination deceptively named the "Fairness Doctrine."
Don't let the name fool you. This doctrine is nothing less than an attempt to stifle conservative radio voices that liberal politicians abhor. Imagine Rush Limbaugh, Bill Bennett, Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham forced to provide "equal time" on their radio shows to the likes of Al Franken, Michael Moore, Alec Baldwin or Rosie O'Donnell.
This is not an exaggeration.
The Fairness Doctrine was first enacted via the Communications Act in 1949, vaguely requiring broadcasters to "afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial matters of public importance." The law authorized the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate the airwaves to enforce this mandate.
Politicians from both parties quickly applied the doctrine to stifle opposing voices. For instance, Bill Ruder, a Democratic campaign consultant and Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Kennedy Administration, once said, "our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters and hope the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue." Similarly, President Nixon's administration routinely instituted proceedings against stations whose views enraged the White House.
Is it too far-fetched to envision certain 2008 White House aspirants engaging in similar strategy if elected?
In 1969, the United States Supreme Court initially upheld the Fairness Doctrine in Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC, but noted that the rule would be subject to reconsideration if it became "too restrictive" of free speech. Indeed, in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo that the doctrine "inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate." Then, in 1984, the Supreme Court held in FCC v. League of Women Voters that the doctrine's underlying rationale was corroded and had limited the range of public debate.
As a consequence, the FCC finally overturned the doctrine in 1987. At that time, the FCC rightly observed that the rule contravened its purpose by failing to encourage discussion of critical public issues, and that it contravened the First Amendment's explicit admonition that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."
Now, however, liberals in Congress seek to compel the FCC to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. These politicians and their supporters aren't so much concerned about the number of viewpoints available, but rather the fact that the wrong kind of programs are flourishing.
On its face, the Fairness Doctrine may sound like a tolerable idea. But government control of speech is never tolerable. Furthermore, the real-world effect of the doctrine is not to promote some vague sense of "fairness," but rather discourage discussion of controversial issues of public importance.
After all, why would station managers expose themselves to lawsuits and regulatory prosecution by airing discussion of controversial subjects? The very vagueness of the rule itself is an invitation for litigation. For instance, what is a "reasonable opportunity?" How many "contrasting" viewpoints must be aired to prevent lawsuits? Even if the stations ultimately prevail in the suits, they would be bled dry defending against them.
In response, Representative Mike Pence (R - Indiana) has announced that he will introduce the Broadcaster Freedom Act. This Act will prohibit the FCC from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, thereby ensuring freedom of speech over the airwaves. Although Congressman Pence has been subject to both praise and criticism by the broadcast media throughout his tenure, his bill recognizes that a free press is critical to the preservation of American liberty and must be defended.
Reviving the Fairness Doctrine would be nothing short of reinstituting bureaucratic control over free political speech, at a time when the courts are finally undoing unconstitutional regulations like McCain-Feingold. As stated by Congressman Pence, government should not be in the business of rationing free speech, and it is incumbent upon Americans to vigorously support his bill and urge their elected officials to do the same.