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Republicans Seek to Bury Regulation of Political Speech on Airwaves

Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana and Greg Walden of Oregon unveiled this week the Broadcaster Freedom Act, which would ban the FCC from forcing broadcasters to give free airtime to opposing sides on controversial issues. (Reuters/AP)

Seeking to hammer the final nail in the coffin of the Fairness Doctrine, two Republican lawmakers who are former broadcasters have reintroduced a bill that would prevent the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from regulating political speech on the airwaves.

Amid calls for the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine after the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz, last month, Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana and Greg Walden of Oregon unveiled this week the Broadcaster Freedom Act, which would ban the FCC from forcing broadcasters to give free airtime to opposing sides on controversial issues.

"The American people cherish freedom, especially freedom of speech and of the press," said Pence, a former radio talk show host who introduced the same bill in the last session of Congress when Democrats still controlled the House.

"Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would amount to government control over political views expressed on the public airways," he said in a statement. "We must pass the Broadcaster Freedom Act and bury the Fairness Doctrine once and for all."

Walden, who owned and operated radio stations with his wife for nearly 22 years, said: "The Fairness Doctrine represents an assault on the fundamental freedoms included in the First Amendment. Called the Fairness Doctrine or a code name like localism, this kind of outdated government regulation of political speech has no place in the modern broadcasting landscape."

Enacted under President Truman in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine sought to ensure that discussion over the airwaves of controversial issues did not exclude any particular point of view by threatening to strip broadcasters who didn't comply of their licenses. At the time, only 2,881 radio stations existed compared with roughly 14,000 today.

A Supreme Court ruling in 1969 upheld the constitutionality of the regulation largely on the grounds that there were so few channels at the time. The FCC abolished the doctrine in 1987, casting its requirement that broadcasters devote equal time to all points of view an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech. Rush Limbaugh debuted on the nation's airwaves the following year and conservatives have dominated talk radio ever since.

After the mass shooting in Arizona last month that claimed the lives of six people and wounded 13 others, including Giffords, Rep. James Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, called for the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.

"Free speech is as free speech does," Clyburn told the local newspaper. "You cannot yell 'fire' in a crowded theater and call it free speech. And some of what I hear, and [what] is being called free speech, is worse than that."

But President Obama and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn – the congressman's daughter – have said they oppose the regulation and it is highly unlikely to be reinstated with Republicans in control of the House.

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