Thursday, August 14, 2008

Down with the Fairness Doctrine

A new Rasmussen poll found substantial public support for “mandated political balance” on radio, television and even the Internet. Well, they didn’t poll me!

Here are the responses to two questions on the poll:

Should the government require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of conservative and liberal political commentary?

Yes: 47%
No: 39%
Not Sure: 14%

Should the government require web sites and bloggers that offer political commentary to present opposing viewpoints?

Yes: 31%
No: 57%
Not Sure: 12%
Without explicitly naming it, the poll is alluding to the long-gone Fairness Doctrine. This FCC policy required contrasting viewpoints to be presented on matters of public interest over publicly-owned airwaves. The FCC repealed most of the elements of this doctrine in 1987. But after the success of conservative talk radio, various liberals including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senators Dick Durbin and John Kerry have promoted its return. According to the Rasmussen poll, 54% of Democrats agree.

They could not be more wrong.

From a policy perspective, the government should regulate speech – especially political speech – as sparingly as possible. (Some consider campaign contributions to be speech, but I consider them to be exercises of influence – a different thing entirely.) Free speech is the ultimate weapon owned by the citizens to exercise their sovereignty over the government. The content of that speech should be their decision alone.

From a tactical perspective, liberals look intolerant and fearful when they push the Fairness Doctrine. An independent observer would look at their efforts to use government power to muzzle the other side and think, “What are you afraid of?” There is nothing to fear from conservative ideas. Learn from them, steal any of the good ones and oppose the rest of them. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan forged a great career from doing exactly that.

It will not surprise you that I am particularly displeased that a third of the country wants political blogs to provide equal time. Can you imagine if federal law required me to run a “Big Daddy Knows Best” column every Friday listing all of my errors for the week? The readers might be amused, but we should surely not pile any more work on our much-beloved Senate President.

I have several fairness doctrines. They’re called the remote control, the radio dial, the mouse and the off button. When I use them, no one’s free speech rights are abridged. Alternatively, if you don’t like speech from the other side, there are three constitutional things you can do about it:

1. Ignore it.

2. Debate it.

3. Defeat it at the ballot box.

But to use government power to censor it? Restrict it? Shut it down? That may work in Communist China, but not in the land of the free and the home of the brave.