Report: new Fairness Doctrine would face high legal hurdle

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February 12, 2009

By Matthew Lasar (Ars Technica)[1]

Talk of reviving the Fairness Doctrine raises hackles on both sides of the aisle for different reasons. Any attempt to revive it would face an uphill battle in the courts, a Congressional research report says.

Is Congress going to introduce a bill calling for the restoration of the Fairness Doctrine? Dark predictions continue to emanate from various experts auguring an attempt to revive it. But according to the Library of Congress' Thomas guide on Congressional action, the only active Fairness Doctrine-related bills in the House and Senate would bar the FCC from ever bringing the policy back again.

Some lawmaker out there is obviously interested in the Doctrine, though, because the Congressional Research Service has recently published an analysis (PDF) of the regulation's history and prospects, one that recently showed up on Wikileaks. What does it conclude? Its main findings can't be encouraging to pro-Fairness Doctrine schemers lurking around the corridors of Capitol Hill.

"Any attempt to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine likely would be met with a constitutional challenge," the study warns. "Whether a newly instituted Fairness Doctrine would survive constitutional scrutiny remains an open question." One thing is for sure—wherever you stand on this controversial question, this report is one of the best summaries of the issue available on the Web.

Let's be reasonable

To recap: the FCC enforced the Fairness Doctrine from 1949 until abandoning it in 1987. It required broadcasters to devote a "reasonable portion" of airtime to "controversial issues of public importance" and to offer access to "the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues presented."

This mission, despite its theoretical virtues, put the government in charge of regulating the political content of license holders. Broadcasters hated it. The Reagan administration's FCC bumped the policy off. Congress tried to reinstate the Doctrine twice, but Reagan and the first Bush vetoed their bills.

As the CRS report notes, in February of 2005, a small gaggle of House Democrats took a stab at trying to bring something like the Fairness Doctrine back. Their proposed law got nowhere. Over the next two years they didn't try again, despite restoring slim majorities in Congress.

But Republicans had a ball with the controversy, repeatedly submitting bills banning the FCC from reviving the Doctrine. These didn't get anywhere either. In an effort to calm everybody down, then FCC Chair Kevin Martin publicly promised not to enforce the policy. Neither of the agency's Democrats objected to this. But the GOP was on a roll. It finally got a rider attached to an appropriations bill preventing Martin or his successors from bringing back Fairness, at least until the budget for fiscal year 2009 is passed or March 6 arrives, whichever comes sooner. That is where we stand now, with, as noted, several bills pending to extend the ban indefinitely.

The CRS reports' main question can be inflammatorily summarized as follows: if Congressional Democrats were moronic enough to sidetrack themselves in this crisis moment by actually attempting to reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine, and if by some miracle they managed to get such a bill past Republicans, who, despite all their protestations, would probably love to see the Democrats try, would the law survive a legal challenge that reached the United States Supreme Court?

Here's how the report sees the issue:

Does Red Lion still matter?

As Fairness Doctrine history fanatics know, in 1969 the Supreme Court declared the policy constitutional. In the Red Lion case—a dispute between a radio station and a journalist who demanded his right to respond to an attack—the Supremes ruled that the FCC had statutory authority to implement the doctrine. It also ruled that because of the "scarcity" of broadcast frequencies, the First Amendment right of listeners to hear many viewpoints over the public airwaves outweighed the rights of the license holders themselves.

But by the mid-1980s, the Commission was ready to dump the doctrine. In short, the FCC argued that, with the onset of cable and other technologies, the scarcity concept no longer held the same weight it had two decades earlier. The agency also noted broadcasters who told the Commission that they avoided tackling certain issues for fear of Fairness Doctrine lawsuits.

When an appeals court ruled that Congress had never specifically codified the Fairness Doctrine per se, the FCC made its move—in 1987 it declined to enforce the policy in response to a complaint. "The principal function of the First Amendment has been to protect the free marketplace of ideas by precluding government intrusion," the Commission declared.

If Congress restored the Fairness Doctrine, a court challenge would doubtless focus on First Amendment questions, the CRS study says. "The Fairness Doctrine is a content-based restriction on speech because it requires a government agent, the FCC, to examine the speech of private actors and to make subjective judgments regarding the fairness of the speech," it explains. And in Miami Herald Publishing v. Tornillo (1974), the Supreme Court nuked a Florida law that applied the Fairness Doctrine to newspapers.

"It seems, therefore, that if the Supreme Court were to apply strict scrutiny to the Fairness Doctrine the doctrine would be struck down," the CRS survey concludes. But nota bene that we're talking about "strict scrutiny" here. The question is whether the Big Nine (or at least five of them) would go for a less strict standing—still finding merit in the scarcity concept. In fact, the high court has repeatedly reaffirmed the ideas that broadcast licenses are scarce or unique—the second most famously in its 1978 Pacifica v. FCC indecency decision.

Tailor me narrow

So it's possible that the Supremes could opt for "intermediate scrutiny," the CRS analysis says, based on the following logic:

unlike other regulations on broadcaster speech that have been struck down, the Fairness Doctrine requires that speech be answered with more speech. This aspect of the doctrine has been cited approvingly by the Supreme Court. The Fairness Doctrine does not single out any one point of view as objectionable or off-limits. Instead, it requires that all significant points of view on issues of public importance receive broadcast time. This is a tenet at the core of the First Amendment, and it could be argued that the doctrine achieved its goal of raising the level of debate on the broadcast airwaves, despite the FCC’s findings in the 1980s.

Were the Supreme Court to follow this logic and uphold the Fairness Doctrine yet again, it would probably require the policy to be "narrowly tailored"—that is, enforced on a case-by-case basis, CRS predicts. But other, less flexible systems might also be approved. None of this, however, would apply to satellite and cable providers, who do not hold licenses to the public airwaves and therefore, like newspapers, enjoy strict First Amendment protection.

This is all conjecture, of course. The real legal debate would be launched by some member of the House or Senate submitting a bill calling upon the FCC to start enforcing the Fairness Doctrine again. Is that going to happen? Hopefully not. But one must always be mindful of Einstein's famous distinction between genius and stupidity. "Genius," he noted, "has its limits."

Thanks to Ars Technica and Matthew Lasar for covering this topic. Copyright remains with the aforementioned.

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