Friday, August 17, 2007

Boehner Weekly Column: Free Speech Under Attack by Calls to Revive Fairness Doctrine

The U.S. Constitution guarantees and spells out our rights as citizens, the foremost of which is the freedom of speech. And over the past few months, there’s been talk among liberal Democrats of reviving the so-called Fairness Doctrine, a repealed Federal Communications Commission rule requiring broadcast license-holders to offer a balanced presentation of controversial issues.

The theory behind the Fairness Doctrine, put in place in the 1940s when there were relatively few radio and television stations compared to today, was that the limited numbers of these media outlets should offer people the full spectrum of news and opinion. I’ve always believed that government regulation of speech is a bad idea and leads to the rationing of political thought and expression, and I was pleased the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987 under President Reagan’s administration.

Of late, however, there has been a renewed effort to re-instate the Fairness Doctrine prompted by liberal frustration with the success of conservative talk radio hosts while networks such as Air America, which catered to the far left, have floundered into obscurity.

Talk radio has become a conduit for those who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice, and reinstating the Fairness Doctrine would amount to censorship of the radio airwaves. Broadcast companies would water down their programming, and could be forced to eliminate conservative talk radio. While the spectrum of airwaves is not unlimited, they are not a scarce resource in need of protection. In fact, the number of broadcasters in the country continues to increase.

But it’s not just radio and television that offer people choices. There are enough places today where people can get their news that we don’t need the federal government playing Big Brother. Most Americans simply won’t support government bureaucrats deciding what should and should not be on radio and TV.

In June, the U.S. House approved legislation preventing federal funds from being used to implement the Fairness Doctrine. This is a temporary fix. A permanent solution is needed, and that’s why every single Republican in the House have signed on as co-sponsors of the Broadcaster Freedom Act, introduced by my friend Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN). This bill would prevent the FCC or any future President from re-instating the Fairness Doctrine without an act of Congress.

The Fairness Doctrine will not ensure that more opinions will be heard. It will limit the number of opinions offered and it will diminish any kind of vigorous debate. Those Democrats in Congress championing the return of Fairness Doctrine have made clear that they do not intend to balance the airwaves – they just don’t like the proliferation of conservative talk shows that millions of Americans enjoy every day.

A senior advisor to the Speaker of the House recently warned, “Conservative radio is a huge threat and political advantage for Republicans, and we have to find a way to limit it.” Many conservatives – myself included – could make the same argument about the explosion of liberal web blogs, which have been identified as a major political advantage for Democrats. But we don’t.

Indeed, we understand that limiting debate – whether by forcing broadcasters, bloggers, or anyone to fit their views into a government-determined mold – weakens the most sacred of our rights: the freedom of speech. And we simply won’t stand for it.

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