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Argument: Fairness Doctrine harms instead of protecting free speech

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Supporting quotations

Adam Thierer. "Why the Fairness Doctrine is Anything But Fair". Heritage Foundation. 29 Oct. 1993 - The fairness doctrine's constitutionality was tested and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark 1969 case, Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC (395 U.S. 367). Although the Court then ruled that it did not violate a broadcaster's First Amendment rights, the Court cautioned that if the doctrine ever began to restrain speech, then the rule's constitutionality should be reconsidered. Just five years later, without ruling the doctrine unconstitutional, the Court concluded in another case that the doctrine "inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate" (Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241). In 1984, the Court concluded that the scarcity rationale underlying the doctrine was flawed and that the doctrine was limiting the breadth of public debate (FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364). This ruling set the stage for the FCC's action in 1987. An attempt by Congress to reinstate the rule by statute was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, and later attempts failed even to pass Congress.

As an independent regulatory agency, the FCC has the power to reimpose the doctrine without congressional or executive action. So far, the Commission has taken no position on the Hollings-Hefner legislation or expressed an interest in reregulating on its own. Current FCC Chairman James Quello, though, has stated that, "The fairness doctrine doesn't belong in a country that's dedicated to freedom of the press and freedom of speech." (Doug Halonen, "Twelve to Watch in 1993," Electronic Media, January 25, 1993, p. 66.) The Clinton Administration has not taken an official position on the legislation.

Supporters of reviving the fairness doctrine base their argument on the very same three faulty premises that the FCC and most judicial rulings have rejected.

Faulty Premise #3: The fairness doctrine guarantees that more opinions will be aired.

Reality: Arbitrary enforcement of the fairness doctrine will diminish vigorous debate.

Of all arguments for the reinstitution of the fairness doctrine, the most inaccurate and insidious is that it will permit a greater diversity of opinion to be heard. By requiring, under threat of arbitrary legal penalty, that broadcasters "fairly" represent both sides of a given issue, advocates of the doctrine believe that more views will be aired while the editorial content of the station can remain unaltered. But with the threat of potential FCC retaliation for perceived lack of compliance, most broadcasters would be more reluctant to air their own opinions because it might require them to air alternative perspectives that their audience does not want to hear.

Thus, the result of the fairness doctrine in many cases would be to stifle the growth of disseminating views and, in effect, make free speech less free. This is exactly what led the FCC to repeal the rule in 1987. FCC officials found that the doctrine "had the net effect of reducing, rather than enhancing, the discussion of controversial issues of public importance," and therefore was in violation of constitutional principles. ("FCC Ends Enforcement of Fairness Doctrine," Federal Communications Commission News, Report No. MM-263, August 4, 1987.) Even liberal New York Governor Mario Cuomo has argued that, "Precisely because radio and TV have become our principal sources of news and information, we should accord broadcasters the utmost freedom in order to insure a truly free press." (Mario Cuomo, "The Unfairness Doctrine," The New York Times, September 20, 1993, p. A19.)


"Fairness Doctrine? No!". Huffington Post. July 7th, 2008 - Guest blogger Greg Todd wrote: "The public figure doctrine needs to be revised, the Fairness Doctrine needs to be revived, there must be brakes and restraints on falsehoods and deception, otherwise they will propagate like bacteria through a population that we Upper Eastsiders rarely mix with."

[guest blogger Bruce Braun:] Using Mr. Todd's reasoning, we would have to muzzle every elected and appointed member of our government. Actually, that is not a bad thought! I guess it depends upon what the meaning of is, is. How do we treat news outlets that mistakenly report an item or regurgitate governmental press releases that are false or wrong? What should we do with those who are deemed to be dangerous demagogues? Silence them? Ban them from any government licensed broadcasting station or public forum? Arrest them? Where do you draw the line when the line keeps moving? Should Al Franken, Jon Stewart or Randi Rhodes have greater rights to express their opinions and philosophies than a Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity? I doubt even the ACLU would condone that. The implied assumption in Mr. Todd's comments would say, yes.

I don't recall very much in the Constitution about "Qualified" freedom of speech. To my thinking, that sort of reasoning would call into question our other freedoms such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Fairness Doctrine was a bust from the beginning. It was just another intrusion into our society by a bunch of power hungry politicians determined to silence those with whom they hated or feared. There was nothing fair about the Fairness Doctrine. The FD did nothing more than create yet another layer of government regulations upon radio and TV stations requiring them to hunt down or put on every single point of view on virtually any semi-political or controversial issue that was expressed on the station. Anyone who lived through the FD times can tell you that every nut ball and his brother were constantly banging on the station's door, demanding free time and threatening to report you to the FCC if you ignored them. What a country! Exempt from all of this were the print media. How was that fair? The Internet was not even a thought in those days.


John McCain said in 2007, "had a chilling affect on free speech, and it is hard to imagine that the American people would support reinstating a policy where the federal government would be required to police the airwaves to ensure differing viewpoints are offered."[1]


Governor Mario Cuomo who also opposed the Doctrine pointing out - "Of course there are limits to liberty and lines to be drawn … But curtailing First Amendment rights should be allowed only when the need is so clear and convincing as to overwhelm with reasonableness the arguments in opposition. And the case for government intrusion, for the Fairness Doctrine, is certainly less than compelling at its very best."[2]


F.C.C. concluded that the Fairness Doctrine "restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters."


David K. Rehr, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, wrote to lawmakers. - "Free speech must be just that – free from government influence, interference and censorship."[3]

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