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"Fairness" Hurts Free Speech

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Location: Washington, DC


"Fairness" Hurts Free Speech

Congressman Joe Pitts

Some people in Congress, including the second most senior Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin, are trying to revive a Cold War era policy of government censorship of broadcast media. The so-called Fairness Doctrine was first applied during the 1940s, when the only available broadcast media were a couple of stops on the radio dial.

At the time, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enforced the Fairness Doctrine, which required radio journalists to provide equal time to opposing points. This subjective notion of equal time for opposing points of view often led broadcast journalists to simply steer clear of the most controversial issues of the day. The broadcast license of a station was dependent upon a station's adherence to the doctrine, and most broadcasters felt it was not worth the risk of taking on a discussion of contentious issues.

The very idea of a government agency censoring a news outlet's ability to comment on important, public policy issues seems anti-democratic—and it is. The FCC eventually came to see the light in this regard.

In 1985, the FCC made the determination that the Fairness Doctrine was no longer justified due to the "multiplicity of voices in the marketplace." In fact, when the Commission got rid of the Fairness Doctrine, its report included a comment that the doctrine "in operation, actually inhibit[ed] the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and in degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists."

Since 1985, the multiplicity of voices in the marketplace has increased exponentially. In addition to the many radio stations, and the network broadcast television stations, we now have twenty-four hour cable news shows, Internet news sites, blogs, and podcasts. The market of ideas is stronger now than it has ever been. And this is a good thing for democracy.

In 1987, after the FCC got rid of the requirement, Congress passed legislation to make the doctrine law, requiring the FCC to reinstate the policy. President Reagan vetoed the legislation because the FCC had been correct in rejecting it. The policy at that point was inhibiting journalists from expressing their points of view and covering important, controversial matters. In the words of the FCC, it had a "chilling effect" on broadcast journalism.

Congress tried again to pass legislation during George H. W. Bush's presidency to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in law. President Bush did the same as Reagan and vetoed the legislation.

And now, in the wake of the meltdown of the immigration debate in the Senate, some lawmakers are again talking of attempting to revive the doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine is bad public policy. The most ironic part of the current renewal of interest in the doctrine is that it was initiated as a backlash to what liberal lawmakers saw as conservative talk radio swaying the debate over immigration. Whatever your thoughts on the issue of immigration, talk radio was not swaying people to come out against the Senate bill—people already knew where they stood on the issue of immigration. Instead, talk radio, in addition to other media like blogs and Internet sites, allowed the American public to communicate their opposition to the plan at a loud enough volume for the Senate to reject the plan.

This is democracy at work. It should not be stifled, but encouraged. Instead of trying to change the rules of the game to favor their issues, these same lawmakers ought to be working to get back in touch with the American public.

It is important to bring attention to this issue, and its historical failure as public policy, to ensure the Fairness Doctrine stays committed to the dustbin of history. We should not forget the "chilling effect" this doctrine had in the past. Democracy can only thrive in a market place of ideas that is representative of the will of the people, not a fabricated reality decided upon by government bureaucrats.


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