Speech-inhibiting doctrine threatens broadcasters

By Freedom Newspapers

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

It’s difficult to imagine a greater abridgement of that constitutionally guaranteed freedom than a government agency that demands private broadcasters must air views contrary to their own.

That essentially is what the former Fairness Doctrine entailed, requiring broadcasters to give free air time to opinions they disagreed with, with the risk of fines or loss of their broadcast licenses if they didn’t please the government.

Thankfully, we’ve been rid of that heavy-handed abridgement of freedom since the Reagan administration abolished the doctrine in 1987.

But government’s heavy hand looms again as some congressional Democrats clamor to renew the Fairness Doctrine in the wake of a drubbing they took when conservative talk radio whipped up opposition to the recently failed immigration reform bill.

We were heartened in June when the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to ban using tax money to resurrect the doctrine.
The bipartisan 309-115 vote seemed an acknowledgement that the inappropriately named Fairness Doctrine would be even more of an anachronism today than when it was accomplishing precisely the opposite of its intended effect during the 38 years it was in force.

But the Senate still hasn’t approved the measure, and even if it does, the bill is good for only one year. The legislation essentially was symbolic. The Bush administration has no intention of resurrecting the doctrine, and the president said he will veto any bill seeking its renewal.

However, there’s no guarantee what a future administration may do. That is why a more meaningful legislative effort — the Broadcaster Freedom Act — recently was introduced in the Senate and House to bar any future administration from re-implementing the doctrine. That effort already has failed once in the Senate, though its author, Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, vows to try again.

We don’t need government appointing itself arbiter of fairness in political debates, any more than we need government pretending to guarantee multiplicity of viewpoints when the Internet, cable and satellite television, AM, FM and subscription radio services flood the marketplace. The record also shows that when government requires broadcasting of opposing viewpoints, it retards rather than stimulates debate.

FCC hearings in 1987 found the doctrine provided “broadcasters with a powerful incentive not to air controversial programming” to avoid litigation over compliance disputes, according to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. The Federal Communications Commission documented more than 60 instances of broadcasters being inhibited, and concluded the doctrine wasn’t in the public interest precisely because it, “created a climate of timidity and fear” and discouraged coverage of controversial issues.

The complaint that talk radio is one-sided misses the point. The Constitution guarantees government will not interfere with a free press. It’s the public marketplace that determines what voices ultimately are heard. Not the government. There’s no shortage of soap boxes today. Regulating speech won’t increase freedom. It only limits it.

The Fairness Doctrine set government up as the referee of debate. That’s antithetical to the free flow of ideas.