Public Knowledge: Broadcasters Should Be Free From Content Regs

"Whatever the future of broadcasting might be, there is no question that broadcasters have the same First Amendment rights as other speakers." That was the message to the FCC from Public Knowledge, TechFreedom, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy & Technology in comments filed at the FCC.

Former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski last fall announced that the FCC would pursue only egregious complaints, an effort to work through a backlog of well over a million complaints.

It also sought comment on whether that should be the new official policy. Comments were due today (June 19).

Public Knowledge et al want the FCC to get out of the content regulation business entirely, and see indecency regs as censorship. "The Commission's proposal that it will only address 'egregious' incidents of indecency is a step in the right direction, and its recent dismissal of more than a million unmeritorious complaints against broadcasters demonstrates a renewed attention to the First Amendment rights of broadcast speakers," they told the commission. But they suggest that tweaking regs is just putting a better caliber of lipstick on the same old pig.

"While the government's efforts to censor the content of broadcast speakers have always been constitutionally suspect, they were understandable given the technology and marketplace of the day. But now, restricting the First Amendment rights of broadcast speakers is neither sound policy nor constitutionally defensible," they wrote. The same groups filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in 2011 asking it to throw out the indecency regs altogether - it didn't.

That freedom from content regs more than broadcasters have been seeking, at least those represented by the National Association of Broadcasters. NAB has long said that indecency regs are part of their public interest compact.

At a speech earlier in his tenure, NAB president Gordon Smith, likening it to the fee paid for grazing cattle on public lands, said that hewing to community standards on content was one of the prices broadcasters pay for their spectrum.

NAB had not filed its comments at press time.

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.