Political Hay

The Fight for the Survival of Free Speech

Conservative activists are starting to figure this Obama game out. But there's a lot more work to do -- a lot more.

By 4.29.09

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Most Americans are sleepwalking right now through the early reign of Obama the Magnificant. He tells them he is cutting spending, cutting taxes, and cutting the deficit, and they believe him. When they find in 2010 and 2011 that he deliberately misled them and has been doing just the opposite, and they are deep in the soup as a result, public opinion will turn decisively against him.

Meanwhile, our "mainstream media," which should be called the Party Controlled Press, are quite successfully maintaining the smokescreen in promoting the Obama propaganda line, acting as slavishly as Pravda and Izvestia did towards the Kremlin in the old Soviet Union. This is the beginning of the end of free speech in America.

Next is to target the remaining holdouts, primarily conservative talk radio and the Christian broadcasters. Then the Internet. And if Fox News doesn't stop airing independent voices, and learn to toe the party line, the Obaman Left will further browbeat them.

Now is the time for true patriots to stand up and fight for the survival of free speech in America. Grassroots activism is needed here. If the Left shuts down free speech, we will no longer have a free country.

Property Rights: The Foundation of All Other Rights

The airwaves, meaning the broadcast spectrum, are already publicly owned. That means we already have socialism in radio and TV broadcasting. This is the root of the gathering threat to free speech. Because the airwaves are publicly owned, government control and regulation of speech on those airwaves is considered justified.

This public ownership is at the root of the Fairness Doctrine. It was considered permissible for the government to regulate the "fairness" of broadcast speech because the airwaves are publicly owned. No one ever talks about regulating the fairness of print media because printing presses are all privately owned.

The main threat to broadcast free speech is coming under the rubric of "localism."

Because the airwaves are publicly owned, broadcasters operate under a regulatory requirement that they serve the needs and interests of the local community. Of course, the only way broadcasters can succeed economically is by serving the needs and interests of the local community. It's called ratings. If a radio station only broadcasts programs that nobody in its local community is interested in, obviously it is not going to last very long. If a station is broadcasting shows whose ratings are among the highest in the local community, then obviously it is serving the needs and interests of the community, broadcasting exactly what the local community is most interested in.

But the government doesn't want to measure localism in this way because then there is no role for government. The market is taking care of it. Moreover, there is no political gain in looking at it that way. What the government means by localism is serving the needs and interests of self-appointed, local, political activists, not real people as represented by the largest audiences.

That is why the FCC has already endorsed the idea of requiring radio stations to each "convene a permanent advisory board made up of officials and other leaders from the service area of its broadcast station." Though it has not yet adopted such a regulatory requirement, this is among the first things that the Obama FCC could do, once the new Obama appointed chairman, Julius Genachowski, is confirmed. But even without a regulatory requirement, in the current political environment with the Obama controlled FCC, a station that does not even have a local advisory board is going to be vulnerable during license renewal. As a result, conservative talk radio stations have already begun voluntarily setting up such local advisory boards.

And who would be on these boards? Are they going to be dominated by the left-wing grassroots activist groups ACORN and MoveOn.org? Couldn't we expect to see all the other usual suspect lefty groups, Code Pink and associated peace activists, government labor unions that want higher taxes, environmental extremists that want to repeal the industrial revolution, advocates of unilateral disarmament, assorted sexual identity groups, NARAL, NORMAL, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, anti-nuclear power activists, etc.?

These boards are an entry wedge that would enable Obama effectively to take control of the radio stations. Indeed, all the FCC has to do is pay close attention to what these boards say during license renewal proceedings. Suppose such a local board recommends that a station's license not be renewed? If that weighs heavily in the renewal decision, then that board, and all other such boards around the country, would have a powerful influence on the stations and what shows they choose to air. Suppose such local boards then start objecting to nationally syndicated radio shows such as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity as not serving the needs and interests of the local community as well as a local talk show host would. Would they develop an effective veto at least over nationally syndicated shows?

Indeed, suppose the local community advisory board vigorously supports during the renewal process switching the license to some or all of the members of the board itself. Then the board would become the radio station. All of this can be done during license renewal proceedings without even any new regulations from the FCC.

That is why if radio stations are going to have these local advisory boards, local conservative activists must get on the board as well. Local taxpayer activists, gun owners, pro-life advocates, veterans, Christian leaders, small businessmen, pro-family activists, libertarians, those who advocate traditional values, free market advocates, call and write your local talk radio stations and demand to become a member of the station's local advisory board. You should not limit this to conservative talk radio. Call your local NPR affiliate and demand representation on its advisory board as well. If they don't have an advisory board, complain loudly to the FCC about it, and renew those complaints during their license renewals.

Indeed, the same localism mantra also applies to TV stations. So call your local ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox affiliates and demand appointment to their boards also. From there you can complain vociferously about the heavy bias of their network's nightly news broadcast, or about the garbage they broadcast during prime time. If they don't take action on your complaints, complain to the FCC during their license renewals, and suggest switching their license to someone else more responsible. If they turn you down for board membership, point out that they don't have anyone representing your viewpoint, and complain to the FCC about that over and over until it is rectified.

This participation on the local advisory boards of radio and TV stations would be an ideal focus for tea party activists and organizers across the country. Just about every conservative, free market, libertarian or social conservative group should focus on representation on these boards by their local members as well.

But the ultimate solution and security for free speech is not such participation, but property rights in the airwaves. If the right to broadcast over a certain frequency were owned by outright purchase or even lease for a period of years, there would be no justification for imposing such local advisory boards or other regulation of free speech on radio and TV broadcasters. Again, no one suggests that newspapers who own their own printing presses should be required to convene local community advisory boards to tell them what to publish or what national columnists should be allowed in their newspapers.

Radio and TV broadcast rights over particular frequencies should be sold by auction, either through permanent sale or lease for a period of years. The purchaser or lessee would be free to sell this right to others. Broadcast rights would then gravitate to those who did the best job of serving the public, for these owners would be the most successful economically with the rights and, therefore, would be willing and able to pay the most for them. This is how cell phone companies operate, as well as the users of satellite frequencies. There is no reason why it cannot be extended to radio and TV broadcasters.

Such reform is not going to be adopted during the Age of Obama. But if we start advocating it now, when America is liberated by a new President, it can be part of the agenda.

This is not to say that just because the airwaves are publicly owned now we can't have freedom of speech on the airwaves, or that freedom of speech is not the best policy for the airwaves. We can and it is. Nor does it mean that constitutional protection for freedom of speech does not apply at all to radio and TV broadcasts even with public ownership of the airwaves. It does. But the ultimate protection for freedom of speech in broadcasting is property rights in the broadcast spectrum.

Boycott GE: Another Grassroots Opportunity

General Electric Corporation owns NBC, and its cable affiliates MSNBC and CNBC. Under the leadership of GE President Jeffrey Immelt and NBC President Jeff Zucker, these broadcast networks have become more and more irresponsibly left wing. A top example of such extremism is the recent interview by MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann of the ultraleft high school dropout Janeane Garofalo. Garofalo launched a stream of invective and name-calling at the hundreds of thousands of tea party activists who exercised their freedom of speech on April 15 to protest Obama's increasingly left-wing economic policies. She called them racists who were really just upset that a black man was in the White House. This is just another attempt to shut down the exercise of free speech, through public intimidation.

Not only does Garofalo not know any tea party activists, she doesn't know anyone who knows any tea party activists either. Dragging an uneducated airhead off the streets to spout slurs and other epithets at ordinary Americans she knows nothing about is not journalism of any sort, irresponsible or otherwise. It is a direct attack against the American people launched by NBC and GE.

Even worse, it turns out that GE is on the take. The company is seeking a multibillion dollar taxpayer bailout from the Obama Administration. This would be payback for the fawning pro-Obama coverage NBC granted to Obama during last year's campaign, continuing to this day.

The American people should not sit still for disparaging personal attacks launched directly at them, stemming from outright media corruption. A perfect response from tea party activists and other concerned Americans would be to launch a boycott of GE products until Immelt and Zucker are removed, or GE sells off NBC. This further exercise of their free speech rights would be just like the original tea boycott that inspired the early Americans fighting for original freedom for our nation.

I don't know about the rest of you, but as for me and my house, another GE product will not darken its door.

The Internet Is Next

But the extremists taking over our country are not satisfied with taking over radio and television and shouting down public protests from network TV. They are targeting the Internet as well.

The Spectator has already reported the statement by one Democrat member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who said,

"The FCC and state and local governments also have oversight over the Internet lines and the cable and telecom companies that operate from them. We want to get alternative views on radio and TV, but we also want to make sure those alternative views are read, heard and seen online….Thanks to the stimulus package, we've established that networks -- the Internet -- are critical, national infrastructure. We think that gives us an opening to look at what runs over that critical infrastructure."

The Spectator also quoted a Democrat staffer from the same Committee who said,

"Internet radio is becoming a big deal, and we're seeing that some websites are able to control traffic and information, while other sites that may be of interest or use to citizens get limited traffic because of the way people search and look for information. We're at very early stages on this, but the Chairman has made it clear that oversight of the Internet is one of his top priorities."

The Chairman of that Committee is none other than the ultraleft Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). The Spectator reported on February 16, 2009 that "Waxman is also interested, say sources, in looking at how the Internet is being used for content and free speech purposes….Does one heavily trafficked Internet site present one side of an issue and not link to sites that present alternative views? These are some of the questions the Chairman is thinking about right now…."

Obama's nominated FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski supports what he calls "net neutrality." As WorldNetDaily recently reported, that means "Genachowski would have government decide what content Internet operators and network owners must provide." Brad O'Leary, author of the recent book, Shut Up, America! The End of Free Speech, adds, "Genachowski would give federal regulators editorial authority over what private [website] operators must [include on their sites]." What this all amounts to, as O'Leary also says, is a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet.

This is still another opportunity for grassroots activism. Grassroots conservatives should join with thinking liberals to form local "Keep the Internet Free Committees of Correspondence," which would pressure their congressional representatives to stop any and all content regulation of the Internet.

Our country and our fundamental freedoms are in mortal danger. Now is the time to act. You don't want your children and grandchildren to be asking "Where were you when they took away our freedom of speech?"

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About the Author
Peter Ferrara is Director of Entitlement and Budget Policy at the Heartland Institute, General Counsel of the American Civil Rights Union, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and Senior Policy Advisor on Entitlements and Budget Policy at the National Tax Limitation Foundation. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush.