In this headlong rush to expand the government’s
authority over the media, no one has paused to consider whether
the government should have such authority in the first place.
No one has noticed that the very existence of the FCC is a
flagrant violation of the right to free speech.
Throughout history the norm was tyranny over the mind. Men were
allowed to speak only by government imprimatur, until America’s
first amendment established freedom of speech as a central premise
of our nation.
The first amendment declares that “Congress shall make
no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This
language could not be clearer, or more absolute. No matter who
disagrees with you or considers your speech offensive, the government
may not abridge your right to say it.
Free speech protects the rational mind and its literary, intellectual,
and scientific products. It means the absolute right to express
one’s views, so long as one does not violate the rights
of others. Free speech means no American should fear the fate
of Galileo, persecuted for daring to assert scientific truths
that contradicted the official Church’s doctrines, nor
of Socrates, put to death for offending the state.
Yet the FCC exists to dictate what can be said on-air. Since
the early days of radio, every broadcast station has been allowed
to exist only if it applies to the FCC for permission to use
the airwaves. In exchange for their licenses, broadcasters must
promise to serve the “public interest.” Stations
that the FCC regards as having failed to do so can be fined,
or even shut down, at the FCC’s sole discretion.
The putative justification for the FCC’s regulation of
broadcasters is that the airwaves are public property. But just
as the government does not own—and so has no legitimate
control over—the presses of the New York Times, so it has
no business regulating what may be broadcast over airwaves. The
airwaves, which would be useless without the transmission networks
created by radio and television stations, belong to the individuals
and companies that developed them. Broadcasters should not have
to plead to the authorities for annual licenses any more than
a homeowner should have to beg for an annual license to use the
patch of land he has developed.
No other media in America is subjected to such persecution.
If the New York Times or Barnes & Noble publish and distribute
content some members of the public disapprove of, the government
cannot threaten them with fines or penalties. But let Howard
Stern offend a listener, and Clear Channel is hammered with more
than a million dollars in fines.
So far, only “indecency” has been targeted by the
FCC’s crackdown, but politicians on both sides of the aisle
have begun whispering demands to censor PBS or the Fox News Channel,
on the grounds that their alleged biases violate the “public
interest.” Both the liberals, with their political correctness,
and the conservatives, with their puritanical religious ethics,
claim to speak for the “public interest.” Can it
be long before the two sides begin the battle over which ideas
and values Americans are allowed to see and hear on-air?
As the FCC wields its club ever more fiercely, broadcasters
are running scared. Clear Channel has canceled its “shock-jock” programs.
Skittish station managers have bleeped out words like “urinate,” “damn,” and “orgy” from
the Rush Limbaugh program. Most ominous, The National Association
of Broadcasters convened a “Summit on Responsible Programming” to
define industry-wide standards of self-censorship.
America was founded on freedom of speech—on the right and
responsibility of the individual to decide what to say, and what
to listen to. Yet in the name of protecting ourselves from being
offended—and almost without noticing it—we are well
on the way to surrendering that crucial right to the control
of the omnipotent state.
Robert Garmong, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer for the
Ayn Rand Institute, which promotes the philosophy of Ayn
of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Send your comments