fairness doctrine and the first amendment

Yesterday, FCC Chairman Genachowski issued a press release stating that the FCC was abolishing the Fairness Doctrine as part of its clearing of its book of 83 obsolete media rules.  What should the reaction of broadcasters be now that the Fairness Doctrine has been officially abolished?  Probably, a collective yawn.  In 1987 – almost 25 years ago – the FCC felt that it could not enforce the doctrine as it was an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech of broadcasters.  Since then, we have had no instances where the FCC has tried to revive the doctrine.  While, as we have written before, the revival of the doctrine is a political issue that is from time to time bandied about as something horrible one political party or another plans to impose on America, there really has been no serious attempt to bring the doctrine back in this decade.  So the repeal of the actual FCC rule that sets out the doctrine is really inconsequential, as it practically changes nothing.

What remains unknown about yesterday’s announcement from the Chairman is just how far this repeal goes.  While certain corollaries of the Doctrine – including the political editorializing and personal attack rules – have been specifically mentioned in press reports as being repealed, the one vestige of the doctrine that potentially has some vitality – the Zapple Doctrine compelling a station to provide time to the supporters of one candidate if the station provides time to the supporters of another candidate in a political race, has never specifically been abolished, and is not mentioned in the Chairman’s statement.  Zapple, also known as "quasi-equal opportunities", has been argued in in various recent controversies, including in connection with the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry, when Kerry supporters claimed that they should get equal time to respond should certain television stations air the anti-Kerry Swift Boat "documentary."  We have written about Zapple many times (see, for instance, here, in connection with the Citizens United decision).  What would be beneficial to broadcasters would be a determination as to whether Zapple has any remaining vitality, as some have felt that this doctrine is justified independent of the Fairness Doctrine.  Perhaps that clarification will come when the full text of the FCC action is released.


Continue Reading FCC Repeals the Fairness Doctrine – Who Cares?

The FCC today asked for public comments on the petition of the MusicFirst Coalition asking the Commission to take action against broadcast stations who did not fairly address on air the proposed sound recording public performance royalty for terrestrial radio.  The Petition, about which we wrote here, alleges, with very few specifics, that some radio stations have taken adverse actions against musical artists who have spoken out in support of the royalty, and also that stations have refused to run ads supporting the performance royalty while running their own ads opposing the royalty (opposing ads which MusicFirst claims contain false statements).  MusicFirst submits that these actions are contrary to the public interest.  The FCC has asked for comment on specific issues raised in the Petition.  Comments are to be filed by September 8, and Replies on September 23.  

The specific questions on which the FCC seeks comment are as follows:

(i)      whether and to what extent certain broadcasters are “targeting and threatening artists who have spoken out in favor of the PRA, including a refusal to air the music of such artists";

(ii)    the effects of radio broadcasters’ alleged refusal to air advertisements from MusicFIRST in support of the PRA;

(iii)   whether and to what extent broadcasters are engaging in a media campaign, coordinated by NAB, which disseminates falsities about the PRA; and

(iv) whether certain broadcasters have evaded the public file requirements by characterizing their on-air spots in opposition to the PRA as public service announcements.

 While we were concerned about the fact that the Commission is seeking these comments potentially indicating that the FCC might feel that the broadcaster has some obligation to address all sides of all controversial issues, implying that there is life in some vestige of the Fairness Doctrine, we were heartened by the FCC’s acknowledgment of the First Amendment issues that the petition raises.  The Commission stated:

We recognize that substantial First Amendment interests are involved in the examination of speech of any kind, and it is not clear whether remedies are necessary or available to address the actions alleged by MusicFIRST.


Continue Reading FCC Asks for Comment on MusicFirst’s Petition Against Broadcasters for On-Air Activities Opposing Radio Performance Royalty

Last week, we wrote about how the Fairness Doctrine was applied before it was declared unconstitutional by the FCC in the late 1980s. When we wrote that entry, it seemed as if the whole battle over whether or not it would be reinstated was a tempest in a teapot. Conservative commentators were fretting over the re-imposition, while liberals were complaining that the conservatives were making up issues. But what a difference a week makes.

Perhaps it is the verbal jousting that is going on between the political parties over the influence of Rush Limbaugh that has reignited the talk of the return of the Doctrine, but this week it has surprisingly been back on the front burner  – in force. Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan said on a radio show that the positions taken by talk radio were unfair and unbalanced and that “fairness” shouldn’t be too much to ask (listen to her on-air remarks) . When prompted by the host as to whether there would be Congressional hearings or legislation, the Senator said that it would certainly be something that Congress would consider.


Continue Reading Fairness Doctrine (Part 2) – Will It Return? And What’s Wrong With Fairness?