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by Gary Galles | Malibu
The prospect that Democratic dominance could reinstate the fairness doctrine were heightened by Senator Jeff Bingaman’s recent public support, given that many of his party’s leaders have endorsed the idea. Even Barack Obama’s attempt to mollify concerns fell far short of promising to veto such legislation, while advocating alternatives that could achieve similar chilling effects. Talk radio criticism of Democrats provides a basis for fears of a “new and improved” fairness doctrine . But rather than adding “balance,” it would freeze out opposition voices. The fairness doctrine cannot be fairly implemented. There is no unambiguous way to determine what is sufficiently partisan to qualify opponents for equal time. Should callers’ time be counted or just the host’s? What is an objection to an individual politician rather than an attack on a party? The implication that fairness only involves the two major parties is also false. Both violate my views, because I object to ever using government as an agent of theft. The result would be a morass of government intrusiveness. And its huge costs (from legal bills to being forced to give away a great deal of airtime to possibly losing one’s license) would stifle opinions that might give the powerful offense. And why should only radio be subject to such restrictions? When asked why “fairness” would not extend to other liberal-leaning media, politicians portray themselves as defending the 1st Amendment. However, their distinction between radio and press freedoms is dramatically inconsistent with our founders, since uncensored talk radio today plays the same role a free press did then. The Constitution included press freedom because America’s founders knew the necessity of freedom of expression to maintain liberty, partly in reaction to colonial restrictions (e.g., colonial printers had to be licensed, but licenses could be revoked and printers imprisoned, as was Ben Franklin’s brother James). If radio existed then, fairness doctrine proposals would have been equally off-limits, which our founders make clear. John Adams argued that ”Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge...of the characters and conduct of their rulers.” Samuel Adams found that ”there is nothing… so terrible to a free press.” Fisher Ames wrote that “freedom of the a precocious pest…and there would be no liberty without it.” George Mason said that ”The freedom of the press is one of the bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” Thomas Jefferson asserted that “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” James Madison concluded that “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity, over error and oppression.” The rationale for America’s founders’ insistence on freedom of the press, when papers were often highly partisan, rather than “balanced,” applies just as much to talk radio today. Unfortunately, some in Washington want to restrict freedom of expression for “unfriendlies.” But such restrictions reflect the Soviet ideal more than ours. As Lenin put it:

“Why should a government…allow itself to be criticized? I would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to…disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?”

Ideas are ultimately more fatal than guns. That is why Americans must defend our freedom of expression beyond just freedom of the press. Fairness doctrine proposals cannot be reconciled with the liberty that once defined America. In John F. Kennedy’s words, “a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.” And, as Supreme Court Justice William Douglas once put it, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.” CRO copyright 2008 Gary Galles Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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