Following the death of Rush Limbaugh, a number of observers — including me — noted that Ronald Reagan had paved the way for him and other right-wing talk show hosts by ending enforcement of the fairness doctrine. That rule, part of the FCC’s toolbox for decades, required broadcasters to air opposing views and offer equal time to those who had been attacked.
So why not bring it back? It’s a suggestion I’ve seen a number of times over the past week. But though the idea of enforcing fairness on the airwaves has a certain appeal to it, the fairness doctrine is gone for good, and for some very sound reasons. For one thing, it applies only to broadcast, a shrinking part of the audio and video mediascape. For another, you can’t apply it to new technologies without violating the First Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the fairness doctrine and that simultaneously started the clock ticking on its eventual demise is Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC, a 1969 decision based on the “scarcity rationale” — the theory that because the broadcast spectrum is limited, it may be regulated in the public interest.
The unanimous decision, written by Justice Byron White, involved an evangelical preacher named Billy James Hargis, who anticipated the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson by a good decade. In a 15-minute tirade, Hargis attacked a journalist named Fred J. Cook, who had written a critical biography of Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate.
According to Hargis, the newspaper where Cook had worked fired him for making false accusations against city officials, and was a communist sympathizer besides. Cook contacted the Red Lion-owned radio station in Pennsylvania where he’d heard Hargis’ rant and demanded equal time. Red Lion refused, citing its free-speech protections under the First Amendment.
Justice White’s decision follows two main threads — that the FCC was well within its authority, as granted by Congress, to enforce the fairness doctrine and order Red Lion to provide Cook with an opportunity to respond; and that the reason the FCC had such authority was because of limits to the number of radio stations that can be on the air in a given coverage area. For instance, White writes:
Before 1927, the allocation of frequencies was left entirely to the private sector, and the result was chaos. It quickly became apparent that broadcast frequencies constituted a scarce resource whose use could be regulated and rationalized only by the Government. Without government control, the medium would be of little use because of the cacophony of competing voices, none of which could be clearly and predictably heard.
Later on, he adds:
Because of the scarcity of radio frequencies, the Government is permitted to put restraints on licensees in favor of others whose views should be expressed on this unique medium. But the people as a whole retain their interest in free speech by radio and their collective right to have the medium function consistently with the ends and purposes of the First Amendment. It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.
Red Lion argued, among other things, that technological advances were making the fairness doctrine obsolete. Justice White replied that new uses for additional broadcast spectrum were quickly eating up that additional capacity, and that the demand was likely to exceed supply for many years to come. It was a crucial point — and it also anticipated the situation that developed in the post-Reagan era.
White’s decision explains why the scarcity of broadcast spectrum was the key to upholding the constitutionality of the fairness doctrine. I want to drive that home for those who think a new fairness doctrine could be applied to, say, satellite radio, cable television and the internet. Without scarcity, there is no constitutional rationale for the regulation of content. And with cable and satellite, there are hundreds of options; with the internet, the choices are theoretically infinite.
If Fred Cook wanted to respond to the not-so-good reverend today, he could attack him on Twitter, start a podcast, set up a blog — whatever. But he would not be able to demand redress from the radio station given that he would have multiple other ways of making his voice heard. (He could also sue for libel if he believed Hargis’ words were false and defamatory.)
The central role that scarcity plays in these legal calculations can be seen in another case where there was no scarcity — Miami Herald Publishing v. Tornillo (1974), in which the Supreme Court unanimously overturned a Florida law requiring newspapers to offer a right of response to political candidates who had been criticized.
In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice Warren Burger writes that even though media concentration and the demise of newspaper competition had led to a scarcity problem similar to that which prevailed in broadcast, it was the result of market forces rather than the unbreakable physical limitations of the broadcast spectrum. In order to start an over-the-air radio or television station, you need a license from the government, whereas anyone, at least in theory, is free to start a newspaper. Burger writes:
[T]he implementation of a remedy such as an enforceable right of access necessarily calls for some mechanism, either governmental or consensual. If it is governmental coercion, this at once brings about a confrontation with the express provisions of the First Amendment and the judicial gloss on that Amendment developed over the years.
First Amendment protections are extraordinarily high, and they can only be breached for extraordinary reasons.
When Reagan’s FCC stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine in 1987, it cited the rise of cable TV as signaling the end of scarcity. I would argue that the FCC acted too soon. But by the mid-1990s, there was no longer any good reason for the government to regulate speech simply because it had been broadcast over the public airwaves.
Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Alex Jones and the like have done serious damage to our democracy. But as Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”