Fairness Doctrine Dead And Buried, Some Foresee New Enemies Of Political Dissidence
August 24, 2011 by Sam Rolley
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced on Monday that it would bring an official end to 83 regulations the organization now considers obsolete. One of the more famous provisions to be cut from the FCC’s regulatory books is the Fairness Doctrine, which has not been enforced for nearly two decades but remains in FCC rules.
The Fairness Doctrine became law in 1949, and was a means by which the FCC could ensure that the opinions of mainstream political ideologies received equal play on public airwaves. As more room became available on the airwaves over the years, the FCC was encouraged to re-investigate the language of the doctrine, which many opponents considered an attack on the basic rights of free speech. Many people believed the law was used more than once to stifle pointed political and social commentary citing such events as the 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Red Lion v. FCC, when a conservative broadcasting network was told it must offer free and equal airtime to a news reporter with contrary views.
During the Reagan era, the FCC — understanding that public airwaves were then accessible to thousands of stations — found that the rule, “actually inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance” and no longer enforced the regulation.
Current FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said on Monday: “The Fairness Doctrine holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas and was properly abandoned over two decades ago. I am pleased we are removing these and other obsolete rules from our books.”
Though the doctrine and the other 82 obsolete rules have been and will remain dead, Fox News reported earlier this month that some people still worry of other measures the FCC could be taking at the expense of free speech by enforcing “localism,” a principal that would ensure that local stations serve their communities.
“The government would be compiling data as to what kind of content you were airing and whether the government thought that was appropriate content,” said Robert McDowell, an FCC commissioner in a Fox interview. “It could be political speech; it could be shows on baking or gardening. But we don’t know where the government is headed.”
Many free speech advocates have turned their attention from concerns about 1st Amendment violations in traditional broadcasting to focus on issues with newer forms of mass communication recently. Following riots in England earlier this month and social disturbances in San Francisco (both instances in which governments tested measures of stifling communications through cellphone service and social networking websites), new questions have surfaced.
A bill that would give government the right to shut down portions of the Web in the name of national security, dubbed by many as “the kill switch,” was proposed by Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) last year. Many people remain concerned that the U.S. will inch toward total governance of the Internet and other mass communication media through small measures in legislation like Lieberman’s.