Broadcast Localism and the Lessons of the Fairness Doctrine

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The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitutionrecognizes a laissez-faire policy toward speech andthe press. The Framers of the Bill of Rights worriedthat the self-interest of politicians fosteredsuppression of speech. In contrast, some constitutionaltheorists have argued that the Constitutionempowers, rather than restricts, the federal governmentto manage speech in order to attain thevalues implicit in the First Amendment.

The government managed broadcast speech forsome time, in part through the Fairness Doctrine,which was said to promote balanced public debateand "an uninhibited marketplace of ideas." Thehistory of the Fairness Doctrine confirms thevalidity of the concerns of the Framers of the FirstAmendment, because federal officials and theiragents used and sought to use the Fairness Doctrineto silence critics of three presidencies. Broadcastersadapted to the Fairness Doctrine by avoidingcontroversial speech, thereby chilling publicdebate on vital matters.

The Federal Communications Commission isproposing to manage broadcast speech by imposinglocalism requirements, including contentrequirements and advisory boards to oversee managingstations. This proposal limits the editorialindependence of license holders to serve the publicinterest. The history of the Fairness Doctrine suggeststhat federal officials who make and enforcesuch policies are more concerned with limitingpolitical debate than they are with advancing localconcerns or the public interest. Like the FairnessDoctrine, the FCC's localism initiative poses therisk of restricting speech. Our unhappy experiencewith the Fairness Doctrine suggests that imposinglocalism mandates on broadcasters is unlikely toserve the public interest in constitutional proprietyand uninhibited political debate.