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“Complete equality means universal irresponsibility.”     T. S. Elliot

October 29, 2007

Fighting The Fairness Doctrine

by Doug Mataconis

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Fund writes about the one-man war against the Fairness Doctrine being fought by Congressman Mike Pence:

Mr. Pence is proposing the Broadcaster Freedom Act, a bill that would permanently bury the Fairness Doctrine. Because House Democratic leaders are unlikely to allow it to come to the floor for a vote, Mr. Pence has launched a “discharge petition,” a device to bypass House committees and move the bill directly to the floor. He needs 218 members–a House majority–to sign the petition. He has collected 185 signatures, but all from Republicans. Democrats are being told by their leadership that signing such a petition would undermine their control of the House.

Mr. Pence, says that “freedom should not be a partisan issue” and that he is optimistic that he can collect the signature of every Republican and then pluck off some 20 of the Democrats who voted for his one-year moratorium last summer (he’d need at least 18).

The stakes are high. “Lovers of liberty must expose calls to restore the Fairness Doctrine for the fraudulent power-grab that they plainly are,” writes Brian Anderson, editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

The fight is about more than just so-called right-wing domination of talk radio, it’s about the state’s ability to control what we hear, and, as Fund points out, the advocates of the Fairness Doctrine has something in mind other than just balance:

[T]he attempts to control the airwaves won’t stop with so-called equal time rules. Al Franken, the liberal former Air America host who is now running for the Senate in Minnesota, is already slipping into the role of potential legislative censor of his old industry. “You shouldn’t be able to lie on the air,” he told Newsweek’s Mr. Fineman earlier this year. “You can’t utter obscenities in a broadcast, so why should you be able to lie? You should be fined for lying.”

In fact, you can be “fined” for lying, if the person you lie about successfully sues for defamation. But the First Amendment makes it exceedingly difficult for defamation plaintiffs to prevail, especially if they are public figures–and for good reason. Under a more pro-plaintiff legal regime, “the pall of fear and timidity imposed upon those who would give voice to public criticism is an atmosphere in which the First Amendment freedoms cannot survive,” Justice William Brennan wrote in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964).

As Fund points out, there was a time when Justice Brennan was a liberal hero, but that was when it suited their political goals.


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