D.C. Circuit’s ‘Net Neutrality’ Decision

The D.C. Circuit Court’s decision, while obviously correct, will not slake the thirst of anyone looking for intellectual arguments for or against the FCC’s proposed regulation of the ISPs’ network-management practices. Because the court ruled that the FCC lacked the "ancillary" authority it asserted, the body of the decision amounts to little more than a refutation of the respondents’ argument that earlier Supreme Court decisions provided precedent for the FCC’s claims.

The "legalistic" nature of this decision aside, there is something important here. It is widely surmised (and feared) that, thus rebuffed, the FCC will attempt to get to its desired result – network neutrality, as it’s called – by attempting to regulate ISPs, like phone companies, under Title II of the Communications Act.

But look what’s happening here. On the basis of claims of abuse so slim they’re very nearly invisible, the FCC has proposed to expand and codify that agency’s "Internet principles" in a way that guarantees its regulatory oversight of the freest, most democratic, and fastest-growing communications medium in the country. And for what? Because of fears that Internet providers might look for ways to insulate everybody else from the negative consequences of the actions of a relative handful of bandwidth hogs?

One of the intervenors in this case – Free Press, whose sole reason for being is the subjugation of the commercial media and communications companies to the yoke of government – coined the phrase "Net Neutrality: The First Amendment of the Internet." The reality, as someone put it, is that codified net neutrality is more nearly "The Fairness Doctrine of the Internet."

For now, nobody knows for sure what will happen next – whether the FCC, or Congress, will push ahead in the conviction that this too is an issue of such "transformative" importance the only thing that matters is getting it done. But in this, as in so many things, the wiser course would be to rethink the matter entirely. It rarely happens that government acts more efficiently than the marketplace, and net neutrality is almost certainly no exception to that rule.

The Intrinsic Menace in ‘Media Reform’

Christian theologians refer to the first three books of the New Testament as the synoptic gospels.  This, because of their similarities in content and order.  The new religion of “media reform,” whose principal tenet is that government needs to “save” journalism, is developing its own synoptic gospels – the gospel according to the Knight Foundation, Free Press, and just now rounding into view, the FCC.

For those who, until now, have enjoyed the luxury of knowing little about the handiwork of this threesome, a few words are in order:

The Knight Foundation (the vestigial remains of the defunct Knight-Ridder newspaper empire) is one of the country’s largest grant-giving foundations, with assets in the neighborhood of $2 billion.  Like Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" ("I won’t be ignored, Dan"), the Knight Foundation is not going away.

Through its gifts to educational and nonprofit organizations, the foundation funds journalism programs as its “signature work.”  It recently joined forces with the Aspen Institute to create the Knight Commission, the product of whose labor is the recently released report on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy (not to be confused with the information needs of community Democrats), an opus that, as reported here, is trivial and irrelevant, about 50-50.

Free Press is the absurd name of a paleoleftist organization that sees government influence over the media as a way to advance its larger political views, a point made both explicitly and inadvertently in the published opinions of the group’s founder and Maximum Leader, Professor Robert McChesney.  Free Press (or its lobbying arm, the Free Press Action Fund) convenes national “media reform” conferences; encourages laws and regulations that aim to increase the role of public media and reduce that of the commercial media; and coins amusingly infantile slogans like “Net neutrality: the First Amendment of the Internet.”

The FCC, of course, is the regulatory agency with sway over the affairs of the media, which, under chairman Julius Genachowski, has embarked on a number of “media reform” initiatives that parallel, if they aren’t in actual collaboration with, those of Free Press and the Knight Foundation.

Genachowski, for instance, was presented with a copy of the Knight Commission report at a publication ceremony at the Newseum, and in an interview with Broadcasting & Cable, the head of the FCC’s Future of Media initiative made explicit reference to the Knight Commission in answer to a question about what form his recommendations would take.

So what “media reform” policy positions do these organizations share?  As shown in their own comments or testimony, that of groups they fund, and/or that of others writing about them, at least three items can be identified.  They favor “net neutrality,” increased funding for public media, and an expanded role, through explicit tax breaks or other changes in the tax laws, for nonprofit organizations.

Looked at one at a time, and from a distance, none of these may seem like an unreasonable objective.  But taken together, and examined closely, they constitute a profound assault on some of our most cherished ideals about the media and its role in our national affairs.

Take “net neutrality,” for instance.  In both the literal and figurative sense of the term, network neutrality is the condition that obtains today.  Nobody is being favored or denied by ISPs of anything worth talking about.  But the proponents of net neutrality don’t want to leave well enough alone.  At the prospective cost of a reduced build-out of the broadband infrastructure (and the guaranteed intrusion of government into the affairs of the hitherto unregulated Internet), Free Press, the Knight Foundation, and the FCC want to codify and extend the Commission’s so-called Internet principles.

But by putting the camel’s nose of government under the tent of the Internet, codified net neutrality regulations would threaten the independence of the freest communications sector in the country, and thereby pose a direct challenge to both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, as well briefed by constitutional scholar Lawrence Tribe.

Proposals to change the tax laws so as to permit for-profit media companies to operate, in whole or in part, as nonprofits, or to explicitly authorize gifts to commercial media from nonprofit grant-giving foundations, or (as the Knight Commission recommends) to provide tax credits for investigative journalism, are similarly problematical.

As with net neutrality, the threat in amending the tax laws along these lines is that by doing so one lets the fox in the hen house.  How, for instance, would it be possible to insulate the media from charges of bias, and the concomitant threats to their tax-exempt status, when their political coverage offended one party or the other?  Might this not have the practical, if not the intended, effect of reducing the amount and kind of political coverage, like candidate endorsements?

Calls for greater funding of public media like NPR and PBS, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, are not so much constitutionally objectionable as they are ludicrously untimely.  Here we are as a nation, teetering on the brink of insolvency and with millions unemployed, and the recommendation is that we spend more taxpayer dollars on… public broadcasting?  Even without obliging PBS stations to commit suicide by requiring them to reorient their news programming toward local news (as all of the media reform advocates recommend), surely this idea is going nowhere soon.

Nor should it. News coverage by the public media in the United States represents a tiny, and because of that tolerable, adjunct to the vastly more important commercial media, whose independence from government is the sine qua non of its editorial independence.

Whatever one’s qualms or fears about the media of the future, the importance of independent (read: commercial) media is clear.  For this reason, the crisis in “medialand” is no cause to throw the baby out with the bath water, particularly where the “solutions” offered – like those of the media reform crowd – ignore decades of experience in the way the world works.

There are some people who understand this and some who don’t, but should.  An example of the former is FCC Commissioner McDowell who, in obvious discomfort by the direction the agency’s media initiative appears headed, has questioned the “constitutional, legal, and policy implications” of any government effort to “preserve or change journalism.”

Those who, in large numbers, do not get it include much of the “netroots nation” and progressives generally.  But here’s an exercise that might provide a cure for this.  Imagine a time, not too many years in the future, when the GOP controls the presidency, the House, and the Senate.  The Republican president has appointed a majority of the commissioners at the FTC and the FCC, and has, like all presidents, substantial influence with the independent agencies.

In this environment, how confident would progressives be that the Republicans would not attempt to use the FCC’s oversight of the Internet, as established through the years-earlier codification of net neutrality rules, or sway over the committees of Congress (and through it of the CPB), to influence the content of the media, commercial and public?

It is, of course, a rhetorical question.

First published here on The Huffington Post, Feb. 22, 2010.

Net Neutrality in Retreat?

If you’re a “net neutrality” critic, and dabble in schadenfreude, things are looking up!  First, there was oral argument in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals (Comcast v. FCC), during which the panel clearly appeared to reject the notion that the FCC had authority to pursue its ambitions in this regard.

Then, just last week, there was the White Paper filed at the FCC on behalf of Time Warner Cable by constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, arguing that net neutrality as proposed is likely unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Last but not least is the report, debated but out there, that the Administration is cooling on net neutrality because it fears that it might depress the amount of capital the private sector invests in broadband deployment — an argument also made here — thereby defeating the goal of ubiquitous broadband access and stunting job growth as well.

One can only imagine the anguish such a turn would engender in the net neutrality crowd.  A conflict between Free Press and the Administration?  How could they reconcile it?  What manner of prose could they summon to express their innermost feelings?  The “vituperative retreat” perhaps, or maybe something more stylish, like an Olbermannesque commentary.  Perhaps they’d initiate, simultaneously, 100 diary threads on DailyKos.

Well, we don’t know for sure but we can dream.  What we do know is that Chairman Genachowski’s plan of extending and codifying the FCC’s "Internet principles,” announced with such confident fanfare not so long ago, is now coming under heavy fire from lots of quarters.

Laurence Tribe’s brief is particularly noteworthy, both for its line of argument and for the road map it lays out for a court challenge on constitutional grounds, should net neutrality be formally adopted.  To quote just one of several poignant passages therein:

Net neutrality proposals rest on the mistaken premise that the constitution gives the government a role in ensuring that the voices of various speakers receive equivalent attention and that audiences receive equal access to all speakers.  In fact, a central purpose of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from making just such choices about private speech, including decisions about what amount of any given kind of speech is optimal.

That Tribe was an active supporter of the candidacy of President Barack Obama, and served as a judicial adviser to Obama’s campaign, suggests that he has the Administration’s ear on such matters.  This, coupled with speculation about the reason for the departure of Susan Crawford, a strong proponent of net neutrality, lends weight to the notion that the Administration may be reconsidering its erstwhile support of net neutrality regulation.

If so it would just be another example, as H.L. Mencken put it, that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Stuart Benjamin: The FCC’s ‘Spectrum Reformer’

Amid their other problems, broadcasters now have a new one: the FCC’s recently appointed Scholar in Residence, Stuart Benjamin, a law school professor at Duke University.  According to an FCC press release, Benjamin will work on “spectrum reform,” among other issues.  The problem that broadcasters have is with some articles written by Professor Benjamin, earlier this year, on that very subject.

One such, “Roasting the Pig To Burn Down the House,” seeks to answer the question being asked by all fair-minded people: “Should we welcome new regulations on broadcasters that will make broadcasting unprofitable?”  And the answer, according to Benjamin, is “yes.”  Or, as he puts it: “Some regulations that would be undesirable standing on their own will be desirable once we factor in the degree to which they will hasten the demise of over-the-air broadcasting.”

In the same piece Professor Benjamin happily acknowledges, in passing, something that broadcasters have argued – namely that some new administrative regulations, like the so-called advisory boards, “could prove fairly costly.”

A few months later, whilst opining on the Volokh Conspiracy blog site, Benjamin gleefully commented on another rueful development, a Supreme Court decision on indecency regulations (FCC v. Fox) that, as he puts it, “makes life worse for local stations” that can’t afford tape delay systems.  As with the added expense of advisory boards, Benjamin sees this too as a good thing.  “Local television broadcasters,” he says, ”have a new disincentive to airing live local events – and viewers have less reason to watch local broadcasters.”

Never mind for a minute that Benjamin’s comments are informed by what he sees as the inevitable collapse of broadcasting (he gives it only about 20 years to live, even without a nudge), and that he sincerely believes that broadcast TV is not the highest and best use of the spectrum.  The remarkable thing is why the FCC would bring aboard, and give this particular portfolio to, someone with Benjamin’s baggage?

It would be funny if it were a joke.  But as one long-time broadcasting executive put it, it raises real questions about the kind of personnel vetting that’s going on at the FCC.  If views like those that Benjamin has published aren’t enough to disqualify him from appointment to the position he’s just been given, what would it take?  A manual on how to poison station managers?

The dust has barely settled on the government’s years-long campaign to engineer TV’s digital conversion – a conversion that many broadcasters think holds great promise for their industry – and along comes this character, as out of some film noir production, whose ghoulish fantasy is to put broadcasters out of the broadcasting business.

Not to worry, though.  Once broadcasting has been polished off, the FCC can focus all its energy on regulating the Internet.

Net Neutrality: Whose First Amendment?

It shouldn’t come as any great revelation that when the government proposes regulations affecting the media, there very well might be implications for the First Amendment.  Raising such concerns, and then examining their validity, is a normal part of the regulatory process.

Kyle McSlarrow did just that last Wednesday in a speech to a Media Institute luncheon audience.  As president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association,  McSlarrow was rightly concerned that the FCC’s proposed regulatory enforcement of “net neutrality” would impair the First Amendment rights of Internet service providers, especially to the extent that they offer other types of programming services apart from Internet access.  He also noted that such rules could impair the free speech of start-up content providers who are willing to pay extra for priority distribution of their content to better compete with established entities, and for others who use the Internet.  

The response to McSlarrow’s speech by many proponents of net neutrality regulation was nothing short of remarkable for its rancor.

The underlying assumption of this net neutrality crowd and their ilk was the tired old mantra: Big media are bad.  Corporations are bad.  Corporations don’t deserve First Amendment rights.  The bloggers from this camp (including a former Free Press lawyer) seemed at once incredulous and offended that anyone (except maybe Washington lobbyists) could assert with a straight face that media companies are speakers with First Amendment rights.  

The other underlying assumption involves the revisionist view that the First Amendment is a tool the government has an obligation to use affirmatively to promote diversity of speech, rather than what it was created to be: a protection against government censorship of speech.

It would be bad enough if the reactions to McSlarrow’s speech suffered only from flawed assumptions like these.  That wouldn’t even be so terrible, because one can always challenge another’s assumptions and hope to engage in something resembling a serious debate.

It’s possible to do that, for example, with the response offered by the ACLU, which noted that ISPs do have First Amendment rights when they’re providing their own content, but should function as common carriers (like phone companies) when they’re carrying the content of others.  Whether tiered pricing for different levels of service amounts to discrimination and implicates free speech is at least something that can be debated.    

But the level of vitriol is running so high among many in the net neutrality crowd that some writers are totally twisting what McSlarrow said, and attributing to him words he never uttered and positions he never (and I believe would never) take.  For example, blogger Marvin Ammori (with the Free Press connections) wrote: “According to the NCTA’s Kyle McSlarrow … Americans (like you) don’t have rights to access or upload content on the Internet.”  FALSE.  McSlarrow never said any such thing.  Ammori calls McSlarrow’s reasoning “silly” and “offensive.”  But if anything is silly and offensive, it is Ammori’s fabrications.  

One is reminded of the Cold War, when the Soviet propaganda machine excelled at “disinformation” – false information which, if repeated enough and eventually picked up by a credible outlet, would be regarded as true.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t bother commenting on the more egregious responses to McSlarrow’s speech, because they’re just not worthy of serious comment.  But I’m taking the time because so much of what has been written needs to be identified for what it is – disinformation – that will only stifle meaningful debate and do a disservice to the First Amendment.   

And while we’re talking about this constitutional guarantee, let’s not forget the big picture, which can easily become obscured by the details (and heat) of the moment.  Do we really want the FCC regulating a whole new realm – the Internet – which heretofore has been a safe haven for free speech?  Virtually everyone in the net neutrality camp seems to think this is a great idea.  I do not.  In fact, I think it’s a terrible idea.  For speech to be truly free, government regulators should be kept as far away as possible, whatever the medium.  Maybe this is where the real debate over net neutrality and the First Amendment should focus.       

Dueling Philosophies on Minority Ownership

What happens when you invite the FCC’s two veteran commissioners to speak about the media at a Rainbow PUSH Coalition symposium?  When one of the commissioners is Michael Copps, and the other is Robert McDowell, you get two very different views of where things stand and how they could be improved, as we saw on Nov. 20.

Copps, a Democrat, is a long-time foe of large media companies.  So he uses phrases like “excessive media consolidation,” “big media run awry,” “tsunami of consolidation,” and the punchline: “Minorities have suffered greatly because of consolidation.”  

One of his proposals to “put some justice back into our ownership policies” would involve a “public interest licensing system for broadcasters.”  Copps would like the Commission to “go back to having some guidelines to make sure stations are consulting with their audiences on what kinds of programming people would like.”  But wait, I think we already have such a system.  It’s called “ratings.”

Copps also favors something called a “full file review,” which would have the Commission award certain broadcast licenses by considering an applicant’s “experiences in overcoming disadvantages,” including race and gender discrimination.  (This sounds like a lawsuit waiting to be filed, but that’s another story.)  In other words, Copps views the FCC as the referee in a fight between “big media” and the little guy, where the solution is a tight rein on ownership regulations.
    
Robert McDowell sees things differently.  For minorities to get ahead in broadcasting and other media, Republican McDowell is quite clear about what is needed: access to capital.  “An important priority for me in my three-and-a-half years on the Commission has been to help create a competitive environment that allows minority entrepreneurs and other new entrants a real opportunity to build viable communications businesses,” he told the Rainbow PUSH group.
    
McDowell noted that he enthusiastically supported the Commission’s 2007 Diversity Order, which contained nine measures to help small entrepreneurs acquire capital or use their financial resources more efficiently.  He has also called for a tax certificate program to help disadvantaged businesses.  
    
At the same time, McDowell is keenly aware of the unintended and hurtful consequences of regulations (of the sort favored by Copps) aimed at helping small, local media owners  – like a “localism” proposal to reinstate a 20-year-old rule requiring stations to be manned throughout their broadcast day (technology notwithstanding), or onerous “enhanced disclosure” requirements so complex that they could require the hiring of additional employees.   
    
In short: On the question of disadvantaged minorities, Copps sees the culprit as large media companies.  From his perspective, the FCC must be a strict regulator of media ownership.  McDowell sees the culprit as the lack of access to capital.  He would envision the FCC as a facilitator, creating policies to generate financial opportunities for entrepreneurs.
    
Whose view is more accurate and whose solution is more likely to succeed?  On both counts, my money is on McDowell.   

Commissioner Michael Copps and Media Ownership

Owing to his earnest and mild-mannered (if intellectually scruffy) ways, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has rarely inspired anger.  No matter how wrong-headed his views – and he’s been wrong about virtually everything for the whole of his time as a Commissioner – he’s been accorded that kind of tolerance that people bestow on those seen to be sincere and to mean well.

That’s about to change.  In the midst of the worst economy – and potentially fatal problems for that part of the economy occupied by American newspapers and broadcasters – Copps is saying and doing things that infuriate.

The most recent, and onerous, examples occurred just yesterday and today when, according to stories in Broadcasting & Cable, Copps demonstrated, yet again, how insulated he is from the world of fact and logic.

Presiding (alone) over an FCC workshop convened to hear the views of academics on the subject of media ownership on Monday, “Copps warned against putting too much stock in the doom and gloom scenarios about the health of TV and newspapers, suggesting that trying to ‘save’ the media should not translate to a lighter re-regulatory hand.”

Then today, at yet another workshop, Copps expressed the opinion (as reported by B&C) that “if the FCC can’t rejuvenate shuttered newsrooms, put the brakes on ‘mind-numbing "monoprogramming"’ and otherwise turn the tide … of consolidation, then ‘maybe those who want the spectrum back have the better of the argument after all.’”

And so there you have it.  The parlous state of the TV and newspaper industries, according to Michael Copps, is nothing to be worried about.  It’s just a rumor.  No need to lighten the regulatory load.  In fact, if broadcasters don’t start programming the way Copps would like, maybe we’ll just take their spectrum away from them.

The series of workshops in question have one more day to run. Plenty of time, in other words, for Copps to give us the benefit of even more of this stuff.

Chairman Genachowski’s Modest Proposal re Net Neutrality

FCC Chairman Genachowski’s proposal to extend and codify the FCC’s “Internet principles,” delivered in a speech just yesterday, has already attracted a substantial amount of commentary.  There is no doubt that his proposed rulemaking will be the subject of much literature issuing from The Media Institute proper, and in this space as well, in days to come.

For now, however, just a few observations, in no particular order of importance: First, for those of us who take a perverse delight in the use and abuse of language in policymaking circles, there is much that is droll in the way that industry players have responded.  Like a man about to be executed, seizing on the offer of a last cigarette as a chance to spin or delay the inevitable, many of the broadband access providers’ comments seek to glom onto some part of the chairman’s proposal as will allow them to buy time.

Thus have several of the companies, and their associations, complimented the chairman for promising an "open proceeding" or some such.  Not to be smug, if we at The Media Institute were lobbyists we too would probably say such things.  Since, however, we are not, we can speak more plainly.

The reason this proposal has come into being, and will undoubtedly be passed in some form, is not because of some new threat (or old threat, for that matter) to the “free and open” Internet.  Rather like blaming, as someone once said, the Johnstown Flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, the record of “abuse” by broadband providers is so inconsequential it doesn’t begin to explain the need for such an intrusion into the marketplace.

No, the reason this proposal is at hand is because of something more prosaic.  It is, would you believe, because of politics.  It is because there are now three Democrats on the Commission and only two Republicans.  (Some would argue that even during Kevin Martin’s reign there were three Democrats, but that’s another matter entirely.)

The best evidence that this is the case can be seen in comments from inside the FCC itself, specifically those of the Republican commissioners, McDowell and Baker.  Not only do they express skepticism about the wisdom of the proposed rulemaking, they openly question whether “factual and legal conclusions may have been drawn before the process has begun.”

Back in the day, at the dawn of the Internet, the concern was that the FCC not become the Federal Computer Commission.  That was then and this is now, but the concern that animated that sentiment survives.  It is that the government is a poor substitute for the marketplace in allocating resources.

Because Chairman Genachowski knows that the strongest criticism of his proposal is that it will frustrate investment and innovation in the broadband space, he looks to preempt the argument by denying it.  His plan, he says, amounts only to “rules of the road” that will actually stimulate investment and innovation.

Well, time will tell but the view from here is much less rosy.  The greater likelihood is that: (1) There will be less private sector investment than would otherwise be the case; (2) that the investments that are made will come from tech firms that employ a peculiarly large number of lobbyists; and (3) that when the dust settles, the only lasting impact will be in the legal precedent established by putting the camel’s nose of government under this particular tent.

A Unitary First Amendment – Redux

By guest blogger LAURENCE H. WINER, Professor of Law and Faculty Fellow, Center for Law, Science & Technology, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.

“[W]e don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of [government] bureaucrats.”  What an extraordinary statement for the Chief Justice of the United States to make when one considers the Supreme Court’s long history of allowing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) content-based regulation of broadcasting and other electronic media!

Chief Justice Roberts made this statement in last week’s oral argument of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  Citizens United, involving “Hillary: The Movie,” is the little case that could – could just restore a strong measure of freedom of speech in the most critical of all contexts, namely political speech.

As described in an earlier post occasioned by the first round of oral argument in this case last spring, the narrow issue is the provision of the McCain-Feingold “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002” (BCRA) that bans the use of corporate funds for “electioneering communications” via broadcast, cable, or satellite close to an election.  In the earlier argument some members of the Court were astounded by the government’s contention that Congress also would have the constitutional power to similarly ban printed material, including books.
    
This apparently led those members of the Court who long have been troubled by limitations on political speech imposed in the guise of campaign finance reform to set re-briefing and rearguing for an unusual and extended one-day September session.  And, the Court broadened the issue for rehearing by asking the parties to discuss whether the Court should overrule not only that part of its 2003 opinion in McConnell v. F.E.C. upholding the specific BCRA provision, but also the Court’s 1990 opinion in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.  In Austin, over strong dissents, the Court upheld a state’s restrictions on independent expenditures from general corporate funds for ads supporting or opposing a candidate for state elective office.

Not surprisingly, the Court’s actions with respect to Citizens United prompted more than 40 amicus briefs with what the New York Times called “an array of strange bedfellows and uneasy alliances” and set the stage for high drama.  How far will the Court go in affirming the political free speech rights of corporations?  

Arguing briefly for Senator Mitch McConnell as amicus, Floyd Abrams reminded the Court that in New York Times v. Sullivan the Court eschewed available narrow grounds to resolve the case and instead issued a broad ruling to fully vindicate the vital First Amendment interests at stake.  And he told Justice Sotomayor that, similarly here, this is the way the Court would do more good than harm.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, making her debut appearance on behalf of the FEC, tried to reassure the Court that the government’s position on printed campaign speech had changed.  Don’t worry, she suggested, the FEC has never tried to ban a book, though when pressed she immediately stated a pamphlet might be different.  And this is when Chief Justice Roberts made his comment about not relying on FEC bureaucrats to protect the First Amendment.

But the Court has left countless First Amendment matters in the hands of the government bureaucrats at the FCC at least since Justice Frankfurter’s 1943 opinion in the seminal NBC v. U.S. case in which, in a single paragraph, he subordinated the First Amendment to the public interest standard of the Communications Act.  This later caused Professor Harry Kalven to comment that: “The passage catches a great judge at an unimpressive moment.”  

Over the years, the Court’s deference to the FCC has allowed all manner of infringements on free speech in the name of the amorphous public interest, from the now-defunct (but perhaps soon to be resurrected in some version) fairness doctrine, to the recent debacle over broadcast “indecency,” and maybe to a threatened similar campaign against violence in the media.

But members of the FCC, no less than of the FEC, have no expertise or competence in First Amendment matters.  This is not a comment on any present or former members as individuals; rather it is the basic recognition that the First Amendment disables any government bureaucrat from claiming or exercising any province over matters of free speech or free press.  “Congress shall make no law” is a straightforward “hands-off” policy for government bureaucrats.

During last week’s argument of Citizens United, Justice Breyer suggested to Ted Olson (representing Citizens United) that Congress had a compelling interest for the restrictions it enacted and thought it had narrowly tailored them.  So, the justice asked, should the Court really second-guess Congress?  Mr. Olson forthrightly replied, “You must always second-guess Congress when the First Amendment is in play.”  Exactly so, regardless of the medium of communication at issue, and a fortiori must courts stringently second-guess the FCC when it is infringing free speech, directly or indirectly, as it is wont to do all too frequently.

Whatever the ruling in Citizens United, we can only hope the chief justice’s words reverberate loudly the next time the FCC seeks to sustain an infringement on free speech or press in the name of the public interest.

Filling the Open Seats at the FCC

Late Friday afternoon the Senate confirmed Mignon Clyburn and Meredith Baker to fill the last of the open seats at the FCC.  Though not yet sworn in as this note is being posted, it is assumed that both will be joining Michael Copps, Robert McDowell, and Julius Genachowski as commissioners within a few days.

We have not had an opportunity to work with Mignon Clyburn, but Meredith Baker is a favorite of ours.  In November of last year, while still with NTIA, Meredith gave a speech at a Media Institute luncheon.  She spoke of the digital transition and the First Amendment, as shown here, and demonstrated precisely why she’ll be such an asset to the FCC.

Our congratulations and best wishes to both of these accomplished women.