Time to Bury the Fairness Doctrine Once and For All

The announcement from Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she wants to revive the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” is big news — but it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

The Fairness Doctrine is an Orwellian and archaic Federal Communications Commission rule devised in 1949 that requires radio broadcasters to present both sides of an opinion when discussing controversial topics. It put unelected FCC bureaucrats in charge of enforcement and determining what speech was legal.

Broadcasters responded by avoiding controversial issues completely, the opposite of what a healthy democracy should expect from its radio press.

This wrong-headed policy was finally repealed by the Reagan Administration, and ever since there’s been an explosion of public discourse on the airwaves — from the right and the left and everywhere in between.

The marketplace clearly prefers conservative talk radio to its liberal counterparts. Thus, personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and others on the right have prospered while projects like Al Franken’s Air America have languished.

Now that the Democrats have control of Congress, their leaders are openly championing the return of the Fairness Doctrine. If they can’t beat conservative ideas in the radio marketplace, they might as well stifle them through government fiat.

Make no mistake: a return of the Fairness Doctrine would end talk radio as we know it, for religious broadcasters, the right, the left, and everywhere in between. And that’s just what the left wants.

Democratic leaders have not been shy about their desire to stifle free speech on the airwaves. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer, and House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter, to name a few, are all interested in seeing the Fairness Doctrine revived.

But now that Speaker Pelosi — the third most powerful figure in American government — has indicated her support, our effort to pass the Broadcaster Freedom Act (H.R. 2905) has become that much more urgent.

The Broadcaster Freedom Act, which we introduced last summer, would permanently repeal the Fairness Doctrine by taking away the FCC’s power to reinstate the rule. We’re not too concerned about the current FCC, but who knows what the prerogative of the future FCC (appointed by the next President) will be.

Of course, Speaker Pelosi will not schedule the Broadcaster Freedom Act for a vote. But if we get the signatures of 218 members of the House on a Discharge Petition, we can circumvent the blockade presented by the majority leadership and bring it directly to the floor for an up-or-down vote.

There are certainly enough votes to pass the bill. In June 2007, the House passed, by a 309-115 margin, a one-year moratorium on funding for the Fairness Doctrine. A total of 113 Democrats — nearly a majority of their caucus — voted for the stay.

Right now, we have 196 signatures on the Discharge Petition. Not a single Democrat has signed on, despite their overwhelming support of the one-year moratorium.

We need just 22 Democrats to declare their support of freedom of speech by signing the petition to get a vote on the floor. Out of those who did the right thing last year by supporting the moratorium, there must be 22 Democrats who are willing to do the right thing again, even if their leader says to do otherwise.