Pai: FCC Should Reject Calls to Ban Redskins Name

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai did not weigh in on whether the Washington Redskins should change their name, but he did say the FCC should reject calls for the FCC to band the name.

That came in a speech at the Media Institute, where Pai keynoted the group's annual awards banquet.

According to an advanced copy of the text, Pai cited the controversy over the name. He did not cite specifically the petitions to deny license renewals of some TV and radio stations that have used it, including one owned by Redskins owner Dan Snyder, but those petitions ask the FCC to ban use of the name from the airwaves as offensive and indecent.

He said he was busy enough without weighing in on the name, and even advised public officials — he named no names — not to "sound an uncertain response" to requests to "undermine the First Amendment."

But he said he was disturbed by an "eager constituency urging the federal government to ban the team’s name from our nation’s airwaves. Just think about what that could mean. A television station could be fined for accurately reporting that the score of last Sunday’s game was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27, Washington Redskins 7. A radio station’s license could be revoked for using the team’s name during a news report on the controversy about the team’s name," he said.

"If the FCC took these steps, we would be squelching public debate about an issue of public concern. We would be standing in the way of media outlets reporting the news. And we would be prohibiting speech simply because we disagree with the viewpoint that is being expressed.

"No federal agency should cross that line. And public officials should not sound an uncertain trumpet when oft-offended opportunists urge us to undermine the First Amendment. We should follow Voltaire’s famous dictum: 'I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.' Anyone who takes seriously the Constitution — scholar or layman — knows the petition is meritless. The FCC should dismiss it tout suite, as Voltaire might have said."

FCC Democrats have all registered some concern over the name but have not weighed in on the petitions — filed by legal activist John Banzhaf and some Native Americans — challenging the station licenses. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made that latter point to clarify reports that conflated the FCC's vetting of the license renewal petitions as signaling the FCC was pondering banning the name.

Elsewhere in the speech, Pai took aim at the FCC's aborted attempt to survey TV stations on their news judgments as part of a study to determine the critical information needs of communities. Pai, among others, spoke out strongly against the study and it was eventually scrapped.

"This was a big win for the First Amendment," he said of the study's demise. "In our country, the government does not tell the people what information they need. News outlets and the American public decide that for themselves. And the government has no place in the newsroom. So when folks show up there and ask questions like, 'What is the news philosophy of your station?', I think that Greta van Susteren offered the appropriate answer: 'None of your business. Read the Constitution.'"

Pai also takes aim at speech repression on college campuses, an issue important to Media Institute President Patrick Maines.

“These are dark days for intellectual diversity on campus,” Pai said. “The number of speakers who have been formally disinvited from speaking on college campuses or have voluntarily withdrawn in the face of protests has risen dramatically over the past 15 years," he said. “The very point of the university is to confront students with a wide range of ideas so that they can learn to think critically. It is not to coddle students by reinforcing pre-existing views.”

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.