FCC's Pai: Rep. Pallone Should Speak Out Against Free Press Petition

FCC chairman Ajit Pai has asked the chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee to speak out against Free Press's emergency petition to the FCC to stop what that group said was "right-wing personalities" spreading disinformation about the pandemic. 

Related: FCC Rejects Petition to Investigate Airing of Trump Virus Statements 

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) had asked Pai "to reassure broadcasters that the FCC will not revoke licenses for airing legally protected speech," a request prompted by President Trump's campaign, which threatened--then followed suit--to sue stations over carrying an advertisement critical of the President that they said was deceptive. 

Related: Trump Campaign Sues Wisconsin TV Station

In his response to Pallone, Pai assured him that he had "always stood firmly in the defense of the First Amendment for all Americans," adding: "Under the Constitution and the Communications Act, broadcast stations have broad discretion to decide what programming to air on their stations. Absent very narrow circumstances, the government cannot and should not investigate stations or revoke licenses based on programming the station airs." 

But he turned the issue to that Free Press petition. 

"[T]here should be no question as to my commitment to these ideals," he wrote Pallone. "In fact, just this week, the Commission's Media Bureau and Office of General Counsel denied an emergency petition filed by 'Free Press' demanding that the Commission take action to curtail the freedom of the press and investigate, or at least guide, the editorial judgments of broadcast stations." 

Free Press had cited the FCC's hoax rule as a way to stop what it said were false claims parroting those of the President. Free Press blamed TV and radio stations in part for "broadcasting these falsehoods" without disclaimer of context and said that, by FCC rule, they "are prohibited from knowingly airing false information about a catastrophe that causes ‘substantial public harm.’” 

The FCC denied the petition with an exclamation point, as it were, which Pai then asked Pallone duplicate. "Standing up for the constitutional rights of broadcast stations means that we must do so in all instances in which their rights appear threatened," Pai wrote. "I hope that you agree. Indeed, given your position on this powerful Committee and the unique opportunity you have to send a message in this particular case, I strongly encourage you to speak out publicly in favor of the First Amendment- and thus in opposition to this group's misguided petition."  

In a related story this week, Pai's fellow commissioner Republican, Brendan Carr, went on conservative talk radio to say Free Press was "engaged in a sweeping and dangerous attempt to weaponize the FCC against political actors" it doesn't like.  

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.