The First Amendment’s Fleeting Friends

If anyone has seen his share of First Amendment friends and foes over the years, it’s Floyd Abrams, that iconic New York attorney whose name can hardly be uttered without the words “First Amendment” somewhere in the same sentence.

But, as Floyd pointed out in a new Speaking Freely opinion paper this week, the real problem facing the First Amendment is not outright opposition – everyone claims to “care about” this constitutional guarantee, after all.  The problem lies with many of its “friends,” who invoke the First Amendment at their convenience to further their own agendas, without much regard for the underlying principle itself.  And who then sit out First Amendment challenges that don’t suit their ideological taste. 

Liberals and conservatives are equally guilty of being fair-weather friends, Floyd notes.  “Liberals vigilantly seek to protect the rights of adults to receive not-quite-obscene materials on the Internet, but seem all but indifferent to UN-sponsored efforts to ban the supposed ‘defamation’ of Islam.  Conservatives care deeply about such efforts to stifle speech, but offer little if any protection to American students when they mouth off outside of their schools.”

Floyd poses a telling question for each ideological camp: Would conservatives be so adamantly opposed to a return of the Fairness Doctrine if talk radio were leaning left?  Will liberals get over their long-held belief that money is inherently corrupting of political speech, now that candidate Obama raised staggering amounts of cash (while refusing federal funding) to reach the White House?   

The title of Floyd’s opinion paper says it all: “First Amendment Deserves More Than Fleeting Friends.”  Liberals and conservatives alike, take heed – even if it hurts.

Hate Speech and the First Amendment

“If you bring up the First Amendment, you’re a racist.”  In so many words that’s the message – or threat – to anyone who would dare question the constitutionality of a proposal that the government launch an inquiry into media content.     

The threat is leveled by the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) in a Jan. 28 petition asking the FCC to conduct an inquiry into hate speech in the media.  The petition was written for NHMC by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law and the Media Access Project.

Ironically, the names of both groups (“Public Representation,” “Media Access”) would seem to suggest support for freedom of speech.  Here, however, the ultimate intent of these groups is to eradicate certain types of speech (and speakers) in the media, and to chill the speech of anyone who would question that endeavor.   

The petitioners throw down the gauntlet to First Amendment challengers with this line: “The NHMC understands that those who would prefer hate speech to remain under the radar will claim that such an inquiry violates the First Amendment.”  

Let me say up front that I find racial slurs and other forms of bigoted, biased, hateful speech to be utterly abhorrent.  Such speech usually emanates either from small-minded, obtuse bigots, or from persons who are smart enough to know better but are consumed with hate, anger, and at bottom, fear.

However, I do challenge the constitutionality of an inquiry that could lead to the banning of speech – not because I’m a bigot (as the petitioners imply), but because I happen to be a staunch supporter of the First Amendment.   

Like it or not, the First Amendment was designed precisely to prevent government censorship, not only of popular speech but of unpopular speech – even so-called “hate speech.”  

There are some narrow exceptions, like speech that incites immediate violence.  That seems to be the slim reed on which NHMC tries to build its case.  The petitioners say that there has been an increase in hate speech in the media.  Then they say that there has been an increase in the number of violent hate crimes against Hispanics.  By that juxtaposition they try to imply that there is a causal relationship between hate speech and hate crimes.  

But the petitioners offer no evidence – only vague assertions like “hate speech over the media may be causing concrete harms.”  Even a 1993 report by NTIA, which the NHMC petition quotes liberally,  “found that ‘the available data linking the problem of hate crimes to telecommunications remains scattered and largely anecdotal,’ and that [NTIA] lacked sufficient information to make specific policy recommendations.”

So what’s going on here?  NHMC and its public-interest collaborators take great pains to point out that they are only asking for an inquiry into what’s happening out there, “merely the collection of information and data about hate speech in the media” – not for any overt censorship.  Oh, and of course they’re not calling for a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, they are quick to note.

But as we know, FCC notices of inquiry have a way of turning into rulemaking proceedings.  And if a rulemaking proceeding aimed at outlawing hate speech had the effect of outlawing conservative talk radio … who needs a Fairness Doctrine?

This is no time for First Amendment advocates to be cowed into silence by bogus challenges to their political correctness.  Speech isn’t always pretty, or pleasing, or even palatable.  That’s why we have a First Amendment.

Shadow Debate

By guest blogger ROBERT CORN-REVERE, partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLC, Washington, D.C.

During the presidential campaign, and particularly since the election, conservative talk radio and the blogosphere have been abuzz with rumors that the Democratic agenda would include reviving the Fairness Doctrine.  Prominent media activists have labeled such claims as fantasy and asserted they have no interest in reviving the policy, which required broadcast licensees to air “controversial issues of public importance” and to do so in a “balanced” way.
That debate has now been joined in Washington by actual experts in communications law.  FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, speaking at a Media Institute luncheon on Jan. 28, warned that there may be efforts to bring back the principles underlying the Fairness Doctrine, albeit in some modified form that may extend beyond the broadcasting medium.  In response, my friend Henry Geller, the venerable former FCC general counsel, criticized Commissioner McDowell’s views about the Doctrine and the concept of spectrum scarcity, and suggested instead that other new regulatory approaches may be appropriate.  

In a commentary written for Broadcasting & Cable, Henry acknowledged that “with the growth of cable, satellite, wireless, and, above all, the Internet, it is most unlikely that the fairness doctrine will return as a matter of general policy.”  But he also outlined other possible approaches, such as a spectrum fee to support meritorious programming, and suggested that the overriding issue is “the appropriate regulatory scheme for broadcasting in the 21st Century … not this skirmish over the unlikely re-appearance of the fairness doctrine.”
This looks like a debate in which both sides agree on two fundamental premises: (1) that the Fairness Doctrine is not likely to be resurrected, at least not in the form that existed before 1987; and (2) the real issue going forward is what type of regulatory model should be applied to broadcasting and other electronic media.  

Commissioner McDowell identified and critiqued various ways in which the government may assert its authority over broadcasting and other electronic media (including the Internet), while Henry Geller highlighted ways in which the “public trustee obligation” might be “clarified and made more effective.”  In short, they agree on the central issue, but simply offer quite different perspectives on the desirability of enforcing “public trustee” requirements.  
This overriding question about the proper regulatory approach is not confronting us because a new administration has come to Washington.  The Republican FCC under Chairman Kevin Martin launched an unprecedented number of regulatory initiatives designed to bolster and perpetuate government control over broadcast content and to extend such policies to other media. 

These efforts included a single-minded campaign to restrict broadcast indecency and Chairman Martin’s overzealous efforts to require a-la-carte marketing of cable and satellite programming.  They also included the regulation of video news releases – on cable as well as broadcasting – and proposed new rules to restrict product placement.  
One of Chairman Martin’s most ambitious initiatives, the so-called “enhanced disclosure form” which requires detailed quarterly reports on broadcast news and public affairs programming, and his proposed “localism” guidelines, to be overseen by mandatory local “advisory committees” and enforced by licensing review, would give the government far greater control over private editorial judgment than ever existed under the Fairness Doctrine.  In fact, forget the Fairness Doctrine.  “Localism” is the new “fairness.”  
The common element in all of these initiatives is the assumption that the government should oversee broadcasters’ (and perhaps others’) editorial choices – a philosophy that is antithetical to traditional First Amendment principles.  The real question, then, is whether the FCC can continue to maintain the legal fiction, eroded by time, technology, and case law, that the media it regulates are not entitled to full Constitutional protection.

Fairness Doctrine Redux?

It comes as no surprise that Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most partisan politician in America, has indicated his support for a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.  Neither is there any surprise in the reasoning he conjures up for the purpose.

As he told Fox News last week: “The very same people who don’t want the Fairness Doctrine want the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to limit pornography on the air.  I am for that….  But you can’t say, ‘government hands off in one area’ to a commercial enterprise but you are allowed to intervene in another.  That’s not consistent.”

A piece published here in August (Conservatives and the Media) warned conservatives of the danger in promoting governmental restrictions on indecent speech because it would undermine their efforts in opposition to governmental restrictions like the Fairness Doctrine.

“Through [his] Media Research Center," it said, "[Brent] Bozell is mobilizing his troops to fight against the … [Fairness Doctrine], but because of the pro-regulation stance of his Parents Television Council there are real questions about how much credibility his anti-Fairness Doctrine activities will have.”

Senator Schumer’s comments breathe  a kind of Frankensteinian life into that warning.  Moreover, there is both a logical and precedential plausibility to what he says.  If government can regulate some kinds of speech, why can’t it regulate other kinds of speech?

The simplest and best answer to that question, of course, is that government shouldn’t be regulating any kind of constitutionally protected speech — a point that Senator Schumer is smart enough to understand but not honorable enough to acknowledge.

For all the talk of it, the view from here is that it is unlikely that, in the end, Democrats and “progressives” will push for reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine per se — just too much trouble to promote the thing openly.  More likely they will try to find another, more opaque way of accomplishing the same result.

As reported in Broadcasting & Cable, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) may have inadvertently suggested as much.  “Asked if he would support reimposition of the rule, which was jettisoned as unconstitutional in 1987 and is credited with the rise of conservative talk radio, Cardin did not rule out some review of media coverage.  ‘I don’t think we’re going to get to it in the manner in which you are explaining it,’ he said.  ‘I think we do look at making sure that our system is not biased….’”

Fairness Doctrine: The Talk Goes On

The Fairness Doctrine, or at least talk of a reimposed Fairness Doctrine, just won’t go away.  It was finally killed off in 1987 but the current Democratic Congress has been making periodic noises about bringing it back.

The big question now seems to be what would happen under a President Obama.  Would he actively support a return of the doctrine?  Would he accede to a Congress controlled by his Democratic friends who put a Fairness Doctrine bill in front of him?  Would he dare (or bother) to go against his congressional allies and veto such a bill?

All we know for sure has been ferreted out by the hard-working John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable.  He reported back on June 25 that Obama’s press secretary, Michael Ortiz, told him that "Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters," and that the candidate sees the issue as “a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible."

On Sept. 18, however, George Will opined that an Obama-led government would bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  Will wrote:

“Until Ronald Reagan eliminated it in 1987, that regulation discouraged freewheeling political programming by the threat of litigation over inherently vague standards of ‘fairness’ in presenting ‘balanced’ political views.  In 1980 there were fewer than 100 radio talk shows nationwide.  Today there are more than 1,400 stations entirely devoted to talk formats.  Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood and most of the mainstream media, want to kill talk radio, where liberals have been unable to dent conservatives’ dominance.”

Will’s comments have stirred the pot once again, particularly among right-leaning blogs where much of the speculation and hand-wringing takes place.

In support of Will’s assertion are two factors.  The first is that Obama need not actively support a reimposition of the doctrine to sign a bill pushed by his fellow Democrats.  The second is that his press secretary also told Eggerton that Obama supports “media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets" – in other words, the traditional Democratic media-policy platform in which the Fairness Doctrine plank would fit snugly.

The Fairness Doctrine was a bad idea for a lot of reasons.  It should be allowed to rest in peace.  Sen. McCain gets that, and has co-sponsored legislation to keep it dead.  Sen. Obama says he opposes a new Fairness Doctrine.

Yet George Will can be a hard person to bet against.  In the case of Obama and the Fairness Doctrine, however, I’m hoping Will is wrong.

Conservatives and the Media

For maybe 50 years, self-described conservatives have been alienated from the dominant U.S. media — the Big Three TV networks, big-city newspapers, the national newsweeklies.  This alienation of a group that comprises as much as a third of the electorate has provided opportunities for such as talk radio companies, and the FOX News Channel, to pick up the pieces.

And even on the Internet conservatives are having success.  They may not have the political influence on the Republicans that the “netroots” have on the Democrats, but websites like the Drudge Report and Real Clear Politics are highly influential and display a clearly discernible right-of-center profile.

With this kind of success — owing entirely to the marketplace and deregulation — one would think that conservatives would be very chary about doing anything that might invite government control over media content.  And perhaps some are, but the loudest voices belong to those whose actions and agenda invite precisely this.

Take, for instance, the empire created by L. Brent Bozell.  From entertainment programming to journalism, the House that Brent Built gives voice to a brand of conservative criticism that spans issues from “broadcast indecency” to “liberal media bias.”

And if this were all that they did, there would be no qualms here about the Bozell-founded Parents Television Council (PTC) or his Media Research Center.  Media criticism, after all, is itself free speech.  But it isn’t all that they do.  Through organized letter writing campaigns, position papers, and filings at the FCC, the PTC actively encourages both legislative and regulatory action against “broadcast indecency.”

That this position contradicts one of the central tenets of modern conservatism — the imperative of limited government — is something that Bozell himself has acknowledged to be a conservative critique of his organization.  Alas, inconsistency (some would call it hypocrisy) of this sort does not weigh so heavily on the gentleman as to cause him to reconsider.

Like the late Reed Irvine, another conservative media critic who came before him, Bozell apparently believes that government regulation isn’t always a bad thing.  In Irvine’s case, the classic example of this was his support of the Fairness Doctrine.  Irvine believed that, without the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives would be bereft of any influence over the liberal sensibilities of broadcast journalists.  Of course we now know that repeal of the Fairness Doctrine led directly to the dominance in talk radio not of liberals but of conservatives!

In demonstration of the tenacity of history, this same Fairness Doctrine may yet prove to be Brent Bozell’s undoing too.  This, because these days all the talk, endorsed by such as the Speaker of the House, is of the reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine.  Through the Media Research Center, Bozell is mobilizing his troops to fight against any such plan, but because of the pro-regulation stance of his PTC there are real questions about how much credibility his anti-Fairness Doctrine activities will have.

Oh, he will, one assumes, be able to organize a letter writing campaign, but such campaigns don’t equate  with credibility in the same way, and for the same reason, that power doesn’t equate with integrity.