News & Opinion » Columns

Free speech at stake in FCC broadcast ruling



So what if the first and most far-reaching guarantee in the Bill of Rights is a prohibition against government curtailment of free speech?

                  On the airwaves starting 40 years ago, the Republicans discovered how to evade it --- even while they were aware, in addition to the Constitutional guarantee, that federal law holds that the public owns the airwaves --- and even though the US Supreme Court had once ruled it Constitutional to regulate stations to insure that public views were presented.

                  So why has this supposedly Constitutionally-governed country been hurtling in the opposite direction --- allowing huge media conglomerates to systematically choke off the public's voice? Could the answer be a design on the part of right-wing administrations to squelch popular views? Or is it happenstance that, spurred by Republican administrations, the agency formed to implement the public's right to be heard, the Federal Communications Commission, is busily chipping away at "guaranteed rights"?

                  Is it happenstance that, starting during the Reagan Administration, the FCC has issued patently unconstitutional rulings that concentrate station ownership and effectively abridge those free speech and access rights that are supposed to be sacrosanct?

                  To understand how the public's voice has been throttled since the broadcast regulatory law (Federal Communications Act) was enacted in the 1920s, consider the surprising but revealing words of that paragon of enlightenment Herbert Hoover when he was secretary of commerce in the Coolidge Administration in the 1920s:

                  "It (licensing radio) is a public concern impressed with the public trust and is to be considered from the standpoint of the public interest." Broadcast licenses were not to be sold, but to be granted subject to performance in the public interest.

So for over 50 years thereafter, not only were the broadcast media required by FCC regulation to provide public access "on controversial issues of public importance," but they were also charged with serving the local community under a lesser-known doctrine called "local ascertainment."

                  "Local ascertainment" meant that radio, and later radio and television stations, were directed to offer opportunity for public views to be aired on major local issues as well as to insure that those issues were ventilated on local stations by the activists involved with them.

                  Moreover, under the broader Fairness Doctrine, listeners and viewers were guaranteed the right to respond when it came to "controversial issues of public importance." It was up to the station licensees to interpret the licensees' responsibilities to air those views, but licensees who didn't perform according to regulation were subject to denial of relicensing.

                  It was the Reagan Administration's packing of the FCC that started the slide, that regressive body ruling that cable transmission's capability to enter any community translated into unfettered public access. Previously, access had been fettered by the sheer limitation of broadcast frequencies.

                  Therefore, despite a stunning US Supreme Court ruling affirming it, the Fairness Doctrine was invalidated when a Federal Appellate Court, implementing Reagan Administration ideology, upheld the FCC's rejection of the half-century-old Doctrine. By then a conservative US Supreme Court refused to review the issue.

                  The result has been to deny the public access to the airwaves it owns based on the proliferation of cable transmission that, theoretically, provides a variety of views and renders regulation obsolete.

A local example of how the ascertainment regulation once worked to the public's benefit occurred in Rochester in the 1970s when radio station WHAM's announcers, backed by the station, refused to air issues that were deemed important to three local constituencies: minorities, community activists, and organized labor.

                  The three groups filed complaints, prompting the FCC to hold hearings. After three days of testimony, the FCC granted WHAM a conditional re-license that was subject to improved performance and conformed to the ascertainment doctrine. Years later, when its performance improved, the station's unconditional license was restored.

                  Just how severely Constitutionally-guaranteed free speech rights have been eroded was demonstrated recently when the FCC paved the way, by a 3-2 vote, to more and larger media consolidations into more and larger corporate structures. Over the opposition of minority Democrats, Republican FCC commissioners voted to allow increasingly huge conglomerates to own all, or nearly all, radio and television stations in a given city or area.

                  The effect can only be interpreted as a deliberate choking-off of public access and to a restriction of that free speech we all believed was forever enshrined in the Constitution.

                  (In 1963, Mitchell Kaidy contributed articles with a team of reporters that won a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize Committee for the Gannett Newspapers. In 1993, he won a Project Censored award.)

Add a comment