Bad News for Free Speech on the Radio

According to the conservative news outlet Human Events, Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports the return of the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" in talk radio, and will not bring to the floor a bill by Representative Mike Pence of Indiana that would prevent the return of this speech-censoring policy. 

It is clear that this policy is aimed at silencing conservative voices on talk radio (there’s a reason the policy is also referred to as "Hush Rush"), and that alone should be enough to kill it outright if we lived in a country that respected free speech rights, and particularly free political speech.

Unfortunately, there is a school of thought in America that believes political speech needs to be "managed" in order to make things "fair," and the government should be given the authority to decide who gets to speak, for how long, where, how, and to whom. Campaign finance "reform," the "Fairness Doctrine," it’s all part of the same school of thought. 

Given that the "Fairness Doctrine" is aimed directly at silencing or at least reducing conservative talk radio, I wonder if the "progressives" backing government speech-control have considered how this proposal would impact those radio outlets that air "progressive" shows? 

You see, in order to even stand a chance of not getting thrown out by the Supreme Court on a 9-0 vote, the "Fairness Doctrine" has to pretend to be "content-neutral" – it can’t explicitly target conservative talk, it has to apply equally to political talk from all perspectives. 

I wonder how the owners of this station would feel about being told that if they’re going to run Ed Schultz they have to also air Mark Levin?  Billed as "Portland’s Progressive Talk Station," 620 KPOJ airs not only Ed Schultz but also Mike Malloy, John Elliot, Bill Press, Thom Hartman, Randi Rhodes, and Rachel Maddow.

All of these talkers share what can be fairly described as a "left of center" perspective which they share on-air with their listeners. Between the 7 of them they consume 21 hours of KPOJ’s broadcast day during the week (the other 3 are given to a local Portland host, it seems a reasonable bet he shares the same political perspective as his fellow KPOJ talkers). 

Under the "Fairness Doctrine, of course, half these hosts would have to go – in order to "balance" political talk on KPOJ, the station might have to cut Rhode’s and slip Laura Ingraham into that prime 3 – 6pm time slot. Or dump Maddow out of the 6-8pm slot and put Dr. Laura in her place. 

Or would Dr. Laura even qualify as "conservative" under whatever guidelines come out to enforce a "Fairness Doctrine" policy? Some of her statements veer towards the conservative side, of course. But I’m not sure that "find a way to make peace with your in-laws" type of advice, which is the overwhelming majority of the type of commentary Dr. Laura offers, is quite as politically oriented as "George W. Bush is a terrible president and here’s why…" type of statements, which tend to be a more regular part of Maddow’s show. 

This sort of chaos and confusion – Does 3 hours of Bill Bennet equal 2 hours of Randi Rhodes because she talks faster? If Rush spends an hour talking about football do I have to cut an hour off of the Ed Schultz show? Do I need to find a libertarian and a socialist talker? Who, exactly, am I supposed to find to "balance" a discussion on animal cruelty policy – Michael Vick? – is the inevitable result of efforts to bring back the "Fairness Doctrine."  

Of course, we’ll have the best and brightest speech police, hired and supervised by politicians at the Federal Communications Commission ready to come in and fine or strip the broadcast license of anybody who can’t accurately guess the answers to these and millions more questions that will come up. 

Hopefully even that will give pause to those politicians considering revival of the "Fairness Doctrine."


The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.