Friday, January 30, 2009

Press Secretary Gibbs Unwilling to Talk About Obama's Position on Fairness Doctrine

I didn't want to let this week end without noting White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' refusal to talk at yesterday's daily press briefing about Obama's position on the Fairness Doctrine.

Here's a little background and upshot:

1. The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949, became a bulwark of FCC policy, and was found constitutional by a unanimous Supreme Court decision - Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC - in 1969. The Doctrine required broadcasters to provide time for contrasting views on controversial public policy issues.

2. I think the Fairness Doctrine was wrong and unconstitutional from the beginning. The Constitution - in particular, the First Amendment - requires government to make "no law" abridging or restricting or regulating freedom of speech and press. A requirement to be "fair" or present contrasting views is clearly an abridgment or restriction of the press's rights. I therefore think the Red Lion decision was one of the worst, most destructive Supreme Court decisions in the nation's history regarding the First Amendment and the freedoms it protects.

3. The FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 as an "intrusion by government" that "restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters". (Red Lion did not insist upon a Fairness Doctrine - the Supreme Court merely said that it was not unconstitutional.)

4. Senator Schumer (D-NY) and others are talking about reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

President Obama's position on the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine is thus crucial - it is unlikely to be reinstated if he is against it. On the other hand, if he favors its reinstatement, preventing that will be difficult indeed, with the Democratic numbers in the Senate.

This will be Obama's first chance to come out strongly for the First Amendment. It has received a beating the past 16 years - Clinton and Bush 43 administrations were equally unwilling to respect its provisions (see my Flouting of the First Amendment for details). Just in the past few days, NBC refused to air a Superbowl commercial, in fear of FCC fines (see video below).

Obama's saying nothing about the Fairness Doctrine now is ok. But the time may soon come when silence will be deafening to the rights that most protect our freedom - the right to say, write, broadcast as we please, free of government supervision.

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