| September 1, 2011

‘Fairness Doctrine’ finally goes off the air

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced on Monday that the so-called ‘fairness doctrine’ is to be formally removed from FCC regulations. This is long overdue. The whole concept of a ‘fairness doctrine’ fundamentally conflicts with the right of free speech and should never have been adopted in the first place.

Beginning in 1949, the FCC adopted a rule requiring broadcasters to provide time for contrasting political points of view. The FCC took the position that because the airwaves belong to the public and were relatively scarce, the public would be best served if differing political perspectives were presented on a particular radio or television station.

The problem with this approach is that it inevitably involves government in the process of deciding who gets to say what on television and radio. As technology has improved, the free-market system has dramatically increased the number and variety of news outlets to the point that no one can credibly claim that there is a scarcity of opportunities for political and commercial speech. Between cable television and the Internet, there are literally tens of thousands of outlets for opinion and commentary.

Because the rule has not been enforced since the 1980s, removal is more symbolic than substantive; however, formal elimination from FCC regulations is a victory for supporters of limited government and free speech nonetheless. Just as government should not pick winners and losers in the marketplace, even more importantly, the government should not exercise control over the content of political speech. The marketplace of ideas still remains far more capable of winnowing out the winners from the losers.

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