A long slumbering, but never dead, enemy of free speech is now able to return.
The Orwellian-titled Fairness Doctrine forced broadcasters to "afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of public importance" until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) abolished it in the 1980’s. Initially intended to force broadcast stations to "cover controversial issues of public importance to the community" and "provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on those issues," the Fairness Doctrine did just the opposite.
Local stations, fearful of how a government bureaucrat would judge their content, largely stuck to bland and inconsequential topics.
Indeed, a 1985 FCC study on the impact of the Fairness Doctrine found that "the Fairness Doctrine-in stark contravention of its purpose-operates as a pervasive and significant impediment to the broadcasting of controversial issues of public importance."
Since the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned in the 1980’s, though, the popularity of talk radio has surged. The number of stations using the talk radio format increased from 400 stations in 1990 to 1,400 stations in 2006.
The success of talk radio has drawn the attention of politicians who do not like being criticized, at least not where the American public can hear. In one infamous episode, Republican Senator Trent Lott decried the influence of talk radio on the immigration debate by noting that "Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem."
Recognizing that powerful politicians were lining up to try to silence unwanted voices on the radio, Representative Mike Pence, himself a former radio show host, succeeded last year in placing an amendment on an appropriations bill that prohibits the FCC from re-implementing the Fairness Doctrine during the 2008 fiscal year. Unfortunately, Pence’s legislation was only a temporary fix and the one year prohibition expires on October 1st.
But the Pence amendment importantly forced members of Congress to cast a vote on whether or not they supported the Fairness Doctrine, and 309 members from both sides of the aisle showed themselves to be friends of free speech and voted against government control of political speech on the radio.
Following passage of the temporary ban, Pence introduced the "Broadcaster Freedom Act" to permanently ban the Fairness Doctrine.
Unfortunately the Democratic leadership, much of which supports the Fairness Doctrine, appears to be bullying its members into line and Speaker Pelosi has declared that permanently barring the Fairness Doctrine is not in the "interest" of her caucus,
Despite overwhelming support for the temporary ban, Speaker Pelosi has refused to allow a vote on the "Broadcaster Freedom Act" and has decreed that Democrats should not sign on to a "discharge petition" to allow a vote.
The Democrats’ refusal to statutorily ban the Fairness Doctrine should frighten believers in the First Amendment. Its reinstatement would bring back the days when powerful politicians were able to use it as a tool to silence their critics and bully the media.
An assistant cabinet secretary in the Kennedy administration boasted how they would use the Fairness Doctrine to "challenge and harass right wing broadcasters in the hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue."
The Nixon administration also used the Fairness Doctrine to intimidate and threaten opponents. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Nixon ominously warned that the Washington Post would have trouble renewing the broadcast license of a station they owned due to the newspaper’s critical coverage of him.
The desire by Speaker Pelosi and her Congressional allies to seize control of the programming decisions of talk radio stations across the country is nothing less than a breathtaking attempt to stifle free and unfettered political speech.
Anybody who believes in the First Amendment, whether conservative, liberal or other, should be appalled by efforts to resurrect a program that puts the government in charge of deciding what Americans are allowed to hear on the radio.