On Tuesday, President Obama spent much of his address to the United Nations General Assembly discussing free speech in an era of global instant communication.
“I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech,” he said.
Meanwhile, under his administration the FCC is holding a plan for a new balance, diversity and localism rule that would enable the U.S. government to suppress television news and restrict speech.
The new rule is similar to the old Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC and courts revoked in 1987 when they found it was against the public interest. FCC investigations had deterred and suppressed television news, restricted speech, and prevented criticism of incumbent administrations.
As my book reveals, the new localism rule would have similar results or worse. One new member of the FCC staff who helped draft the localism rule has written that freedom of speech and press is not his “objective,” and that free speech “is warped to protect global corporations and block rules that would promote democratic governance.” He also concludes the new localism rule could be used to take away licenses in place of the “misnamed Fairness Doctrine.”
Another wrote that television is a “powerful source of homogenization and pabulum,” and recommended using burdensome FCC regulations to “hasten the demise of broadcasting” (later reworded.) That writer applauded a rule which would make broadcasting local events more difficult so “local viewers are less likely to watch the local broadcasters.”
A special report recommended in June 2011 that the localism proceeding be ended because of its destructive burdens. Over opposition from other commissioners, the FCC chairman appointed by President Obama continued it and, after the November election, the FCC could move to adopt it.
The Chief of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a fellow law professor of President Obama, has long urged that the government should take control of news to achieve its political and social purposes. Another former law professor, since appointed by President Obama to the Supreme Court, wrote an article also urging the government to manage news, saying this would be constitutional if news coverage were not “ideal” at a particular time, and government was changing news to that end.
The great historian Gordon S. Wood writes, “Remember that the United States has always been to ourselves and to the world primarily an idea.” Ending this country’s free press and free speech traditions would certainly destroy that idea.
Corydon B. Dunham is a Harvard Law School graduate. His Government Control of News study was initiated at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Smithsonian Institute, and expanded and developed for the Corydon B. Dunham Fellowship for the First Amendment at Harvard Law School and the Dunham Open Forum for First Amendment Values at Bowdoin College. Dunham was an executive at NBC from 1965 to 1990. He oversaw legal and government matters and broadcast standards. He was on the board of directors of the National Television Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Corporate Counsel Association, and American Arbitration Association among other posts.