ACRU

Horace Cooper: Freedom to Speak

This op-ed originally appeared in the Washington Times on December 5, 2008.

It should be a well settled idea that in a democracy, freedom of speech and debate are crucial bulwarks of liberty. Unfortunately, that is not a notion widely held today by the self-appointed political censors of the 21st century; especially those who deplore the rightward tilt of talk radio. These critics of talk radio disregard the overwhelming left-wing viewpoint dominance in newspapers and television and zealously seek to impose speech limits until that same dominance is brought to bear on talk radio. It is laughable that talk radio’s political speech should require government control and it is tragic that if the critics succeed they will threaten one of the most precious freedoms that our nation was founded upon and that the Constitution protects — freedom of expression.

The censors’ latest technique of viewpoint suppression is the innocuously labeled “localism” requirement. The essence of the concept is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), through regulations, would create permanent advisory boards for every radio station — of course, those boards would be dominated by left-leaning community activists in most communities. The advisory boards would be tasked with determining whether the stations were broadcasting a “sufficient amount of community-responsive” programming. The “volunteers” serving on the boards could demand a full-time presence at the stations’ facilities and access to all programming materials. And they could count any nationally syndicated program (like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, etc.) against the localism requirements. A station found to be “failing” in providing sufficient “community responsive programming” could ultimately have its broadcast license revoked. Would the local advisory boards in the cities of San Francisco, Seattle or Alexandria, Virginia feel that Rush or Hannity reflected the listening desires of their local populations? Not likely. On the other hand, the localism rule would likely prevent many stations from broadcasting these nationally known talk radio hosts and they could also limit subscriptions to hourly national news programs or National Weather Service updates as these too could fail the localism test.

Without providing any standards for what would constitute “community-responsiveness,” localism requirements would not ensure a level playing field of all ideas. Rather, the concept would simply empower community activists to impose their own agendas on the radio networks. Radio stations depend upon advertising dollars to stay on the air. Forcing them to replace market-driven programming decisions with activist-driven programming decisions will undoubtedly drive advertising dollars away — and the stations will fail.

Advocates of localism also push the idea that they are concerned about media concentration.They argue that because today’s radio stations are no longer mom and pop affairs but instead packaged multi-media conglomerates, they effectively impose a “take it or leave it” national programming agenda on local communities. Casting themselves as newborn telecommunication “federalists,” the advocates of “localism” believe their rules will ensure responsiveness to actual community interests. This claim fails to appreciate the beauty of the free market.

Regardless of who owns a radio station, its audience remains the local community of listeners actually able to listen to the station on their radio. With the wide availability of satellite radio, podcasting and internet alternatives, listeners can in no way be seen as being forced to accept programming from any particular source. The only way to retain listeners in a given community is to provide them with valuable and useful information.

The advocates of “localism” fail to appreciate an obvious concept — radio stations, like any other business, rely on the free market to determine their services and products. Thus a profitable radio station is a station serving its community. In their zeal to impose their left-leaning viewpoint, the advocates of localism choose to ignore the relentless decline in profitability of another media type — the local newspaper. Predominantly hard-left in its orientation, the modern newspaper across the nation is a great example of a media voice that disregards the interests of its readers and the community in which it operates.

Take the New York Times, for example. The paper pays scant attention to the news of New York City but instead is nationally focused and reflexively leftist. Despite continuing losses of subscribers and advertising revenue, no activists seek to use the power of government to force an ideological change on them. And rightly so. Similarly, talk radio — which actually is profitable and by definition is responsive to the local community — shouldn’t be bullied into changing its viewpoint. Moreover, the federal government should not be in the business of assessing the political content of talk radio or of any news program and they should not link a station’s license renewal to such assessments whether they are done by the government or a private party.

Under the Constitution’s First Amendment, government imposed viewpoint discrimination is unconstitutional. It is also antithetical to freedom. As President John F. Kennedy explained: “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” Localism is a bad idea whose time has not come.

Horace Cooper is a senior fellow with the American Civil Rights Union.