Why Subsidize the Soapbox? The McCain Free Airtime Proposal and the Future of Broadcasting

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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to introducea free airtime bill in the 108th Congress. The proposedlaw requires broadcasters to devote airtimeto political campaigns and to subsidize electoraladvertising for candidates.

Supporters of the bill argue that it will reducethe need for campaign spending, which allegedlyleads to several harms to the public interest. Yetrecent research shows that increases in the costs ofpolitical advertising have not caused the overallrise in campaign spending. Proponents also claimthat free airtime would improve election discourse,thereby better informing the Americanpeople prior to an election. Yet research also showsthat the negative ads cited by proponents as aproblem for democracy actually serve the publicgood by informing and mobilizing voters.

Advocates of "free" airtime defend their proposalagainst First Amendment challenges by arguing thatthe broadcast spectrum is a publicly owned, government-managed resource that can and should be usedto further myriad political objectives. Because privatebroadcast companies do not technically own theirspectrum but merely lease it from the federal government,they must satisfy certain "public interest"requirements--such as offering the public a certainamount of educational fare and informational programming.Because those public interest requirementsare legally imposed on broadcasters, the argumentgoes, broadcasters can also be required to allocatemore time or money for political advertising orcampaign coverage in general.

That justification for government regulation ofbroadcasting cannot be sustained. The traditionalarguments for regulation--scarcity, preventing signalinterference, providing a public service--no longerhold up. The Federal Communications Commissionitself is starting to recognize the decline of the broadcastregulation regime and acknowledge quasi-propertyrights in the spectrum. This trend is certain tocontinue, depriving the free airtime proposal of itslegal and philosophical foundation.

John Samples and Adam D. Thierer

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government and Adam D. Thierer is director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute. This study is a companion to Laurence Winer, "The Constitutional Case against Free Airtime," Cato Institute Policy Analysis, forthcoming.