It’s Not Free Speech When The FCC Is Issuing Fines
-March 5, 2004, New York.
The Federal Communications Commission is making freedom of speech on the airwaves an expensive proposition.
In the past 12 months, the agency has issued more than $1 million in fines to radio and television stations for broadcasting allegedly indecent content. As if these draconian penalties aren’t enough, some commissioners are suggesting that violators of the commission’s ambiguous indecency policy should be slapped with license revocation hearings.
This government intimidation has already resulted in the removal of two controversial radio voices in several markets. Fearful of further government extortion, Clear Channel Communications, itself recently hit with $715,000 in indecency fines, fired its popular morning personality Bubba The Love Sponge whose show aired in four Florida markets and on XM Radio. Clear Channel also suspended the carriage of Infinity Broadcasting’s Howard Stern Show on its six stations that aired the highly-rated syndicated program.
Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting have also issued zero tolerance policies on indecent broadcasts. Get an indecency fine, and you’re fired. The result: the FCC is successfully squelching controversial discussions about sex on the airwaves.
The FCC’s indecency guidelines are notoriously nebulous, enforcement is arbitrary and random, and the constitutionality of the indecency policies suspect. While the Supreme Court’s 1978 FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation decision – which affirmed the FCC’s power to regulate indecency on the broadcast airwaves – has not yet been overturned, subsequent rulings in many electronic media cases have struck down content-based restrictions. Additionally, the media landscape has changed drastically since the airing of George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine put a public radio station into a protracted legal battle with the FCC a few decades ago.
Former FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth got it right in 2001, when he wrote, “If rules regulating broadcast content were ever a justifiable infringement of speech, it was because of the relative dominance of that medium in the communications marketplace of the past. As the Commission has long recognized, the facts underlying this justification are no longer true … In my judgment, as alternative sources of programming and distribution increase, broadcast content restrictions must be eliminated?
Indeed, it should be the marketplace of ideas that determines whether a radio personality stays on the air, not Big Brother.
Instead, the government is using its muscle to shut down speech with which it disagrees.
That is the essence of censorship and it must be stopped. As seen in the use of the Comstock Laws in the late 19th and early 20th century, censorship often occurs around definitions of decency and what is permissible.
The National Writers Union calls upon the FCC to stop the indecency witch hunt, and focus its energies on preserving localism and putting reasonable caps on media consolidation. Such a focus would preserve free speech, not repress it.