Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to introduce a free airtime bill in the 108th Congress. The proposed law requires broadcasters to devote airtime to political campaigns and to subsidize electoral advertising for candidates.
Supporters of the bill argue that it will reduce the need for campaign spending, which allegedly leads to several harms to the public interest. Yet recent research shows that increases in the costs of political advertising have not caused the overall rise in campaign spending. Proponents also claim that free airtime would improve election discourse, thereby better informing the American people prior to an election. Yet research also shows that the negative ads cited by proponents as a problem for democracy actually serve the public good by informing and mobilizing voters.
Advocates of “free” airtime defend their proposal against First Amendment challenges by arguing that the broadcast spectrum is a publicly owned, government-managed resource that can and should be used to further myriad political objectives. Because private broadcast companies do not technically own their spectrum but merely lease it from the federal government, they must satisfy certain “public interest” requirements—such as offering the public a certain amount of educational fare and informational programming. Because those public interest requirements are legally imposed on broadcasters, the argument goes, broadcasters can also be required to allocate more time or money for political advertising or campaign coverage in general.
That justification for government regulation of broadcasting cannot be sustained. The traditional arguments for regulation—scarcity, preventing signal interference, providing a public service—no longer hold up. The Federal Communications Commission itself is starting to recognize the decline of the broadcast regulation regime and acknowledge quasi-property rights in the spectrum. This trend is certain to continue, depriving the free airtime proposal of its legal and philosophical foundation.