Ongoing Threats to Free Speech
February 10, 2014
The Obama administration and other liberal proponents of “net neutrality” were dealt a significant blow last month when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided that 2010 FCC regulations on Internet providers were invalid. However, conservatives should remain alert to one caveat: the ruling affirmed a Federal Communications Commission right to regulate the Internet, leaving open the possibility for more tailored regulations by executive fiat.
“Analysts say it would be unwise for [internet service providers] to take initiatives that set off a consumer backlash or public relations battle, giving Democratic lawmakers an opening to propose new broadband legislation,” reported Investor’s Business Daily. “While the door might be open for ISPs to seek fees from bandwidth-gobbling websites, over-reaching could make it more likely that Congress will step in.”
And so, while the “free market” prevails in this court battle between the FCC and Verizon, this is a tenuous victory, and businesses must still balance their desire to innovate against the threat of Congressional intervention. And before the market reacts to the change in FCC rules, congressional leaders are charging into the breach to defend the open internet. The “Open Internet Preservation Act” was introduced by House Democrats on February 3. “The Internet is an open marketplace where everyone can participate on equal footing,” statedDemocratic Senator Al Franken (MN) regarding the bill, which also has a Senate companion. Sen. Franken and the other co-sponsors say they’d like it to stay that way, and perceive a threat from big business.
Ross Kaminsky, writing for the American Spectator, has a different take: “The reason the Internet is one of the most successful achievements in human history is that it’s been almost entirely unregulated (other than attempting to prevent already illegal acts like dealing drugs or distributing child pornography, etc.)” (emphasis added).
“The idea that anything the FCC would do is likely to increase innovation is ridiculous on its face,” argues the senior fellow at the conservative Heartland Institute (emphasis in original).
“Tuesday’s [court] victory, although in an important battle, must be seen in the context of a never-ending war against a patient and determined enemy,” he asserts. Particularly, “With Net Neutrality dead for the time being, I expect renewed focus by the partisan [FCC Chair Tom] Wheeler on a new version of the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ in which the FCC will work to weaken conservative dominance over talk radio and cable TV news.”
As Accuracy in Media has long argued, a revival of the Fairness Doctrineis fully possible under the Obama administration, although it may occur under the guise of diversity and media ownership rules, or some other promotion of “media diversity.” This makes it all the more disturbing that the FCC has reportedly launched a $900,000 studyin Columbia, South Carolina that will, according to The Hill, “ask journalists and station owners about their news philosophy and story selection process.”
Yet the media has been virtually silent about this study and what it might mean for the American public’s ability to access news without government interference. The Daily Callerpublished an article on the study in late October of last year. Then, in December it published an article questioning whether the study will actually take place, given an apparent lack of outreach on the FCC’s part. “More than six weeks after the Federal Communications Commission announced a broad probe of political speech that raised serious First Amendment concerns, the city where the program was scheduled to begin has yet to hear from the Feds,” they wrote. “Some FCC watchers speculate that Wheeler does not share [former acting chair Mignon] Clyburn’s interest in the CIN survey.”
If so, this would mark a significant turn of events, especially since Wheeler himself clung to the survey as a fact-finding mission in his testimony before the House.
“In order to make that kind of a judgment you have to have facts,” said Wheeler. “In order to have facts you do studies. And what we did was, there is a study that has been proposed by a consulting firm that we were working with, and we put that out for public notice to exactly get the kind of input that you’re suggesting.”
Time magazine described Wheeler last year as a top Obama bundler and an Obama “true believer.”
But why did the FCC choose a consulting firm like Social Solutions International, Inc., which is “dedicated to the creation of social and health solutions to improve the welfare of underserved populations worldwide,” according to their website. “Founded on the values of diversity, social responsibility, and quality, Social Solutions International’s corporate culture is grounded in the concept of positive change,” states their website (emphasis added). These factors may just skew the data the FCC collects.
“The prospect of government-sponsored researchers querying independent journalists about their news judgment is constitutionally questionable—and wholly unnecessary,” asserted the National Association of Broadcasters regarding the study last July.
“Although the Commission’s stated reason for the report is to inform the Commission in taking deregulatory action to lower ‘market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses,’ it is hard to read this and see it for anything other than what it is: Fairness Doctrine 2.0,” asserts a GOP letterwhich was sent on December 11, 2013, the day before the aforementioned hearing.
Diversity in media ownership is a core goal of the Obama administration. “As president, Obama will encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum,” states his 2008 agenda. Obama has also voiced his support for net neutrality.
In mid-2007 the Center for American Progress released a study entitled “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio,” a transparent attempt to boost liberal viewpoints on the airwaves through the manipulation of FCC licenses, which radio stations and other broadcast entities have to periodically renew in compliance with regulatory standards. They found that “Quantitative analysis conducted by Free Press of all 10,506 licensed commercial radio stations reveals that stations owned by women, minorities, or local owners are statistically less likely to air conservative hosts or shows” (emphasis in original).
To make their goal even more transparent, they write: “Ultimately, these results suggest that increasing ownership diversity, both in terms of the race/ethnicity and gender of owners, as well as the number of independent local owners, will lead to more diverse programming, more choices for listeners, and more owners who are responsive to their local communities and serve the public interest.” By diverse programming, they mean more progressive viewpoints. We called it what it is back in 2008: a nascent Obama Fairness Doctrine.
This is not the only threat to free speech on the horizon. The Hill reported last month that “Thirteen House Democrats have proposed legislation that would require the government to study hate speech on the Internet, mobile phones and television and radio.” Who wants to guess what they would classify as “hate speech” in the end? Just look at what we’ve reported about the Southern Poverty Law Center, a media go-to for anti-“hate speech” quotations and expertise, for a clue.
Indeed, the enemies of free speech are patient, and those who love free anything—the Internet, broadcast cable, the radio—must remain ever vigilant themselves in order to preserve a free society from threats like these.
Bethany Stotts is a freelance writer, and former staff writer for Accuracy in Academia. She blogs at http://bethanystotts.wordpress.com. This article is an exclusive appearing at Accuracy in Media.