Welcome to The Undercurrent

In the run-up to the election last fall, religious conservatives intensified their campaign to censor “obscene and indecent broadcasts” on television and radio. Constant nagging from groups such as Parents Television Council, Family Research Council and Morality in Media met with success: The FCC slapped fines on CBS for an insipid Super Bowl half-time show featuring Janet Jackson baring her breast, on Clear Channel Communications for Howard Stern’s nihilistic prattle, and on Fox for titillating scenes of the absurd reality show “Married by America.”

True, these broadcasts are objectionable–although it is hard to pin down which is worse: the rotgut quality, or the brainless jiggling of flesh.

But beware. Leading the charge for censorship is the prudish wild-eyed preacher and Sunday schoolmarm bloc of the religious right that considers pagan cheer per se offensive. You know the type. Remember when John Ashcroft ordered that a curtain be constructed to cover the idealized nude sculptures of “Spirit of Justice” and “Majesty of Law” in the Great Hall of the U.S. Justice Department?

The fact remains that no one forces an individual to turn on his TV set, sit still and watch objectionable programs. There are countless ways for parents and their children to avoid such tripe, including hundreds of channels to choose from, content blocking devices and even–if worst comes to worst–adult supervision.

Censorship, however, is not the answer.

The Founding Fathers recognized that if we desire to live in society with other people and not end up killing one another, we have to settle differences of opinion, not by resorting to brute force, but by rational debate. This requires that we be left free to communicate our thoughts–even if what our neighbor says is mistaken, immoral, offensive or irredeemable. Accordingly, governmental authorities must be banned from issuing fines to shut you up when they and their constituents don’t like what you’re saying. Outlawing censorship preserves the type of civilization in which one is free to argue for what is true and moral–and free to express these thoughts in art and entertainment.

America was created as just such a civilization. The First Amendment protects an individual’s right to express his thoughts. So how are the cultural nannies at the FCC able to get away with censoring broadcasters when our Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no…law abridging the freedom of speech?”

Well, you can blame the regulatory architects of the New Deal era. In 1927, Congress–under the pretext of solving the problem of radio chaos caused by frequency interlopers who were interfering with established radio stations–drafted the Dill-White Radio Act, which seized the airwaves from broadcasters and declared them “public property.” In 1934, this legislation was further entrenched with the Communications Act.

As the airwaves were now deemed “public property,” Washington was able–even obligated–to control the content of what broadcasters aired in order to ensure that the “public’s property” was used in the “public’s interest.”

Acts of Congress notwithstanding, airwaves are not “public property.” Airwaves are simply another form of private property akin to land, oil and intellectual property.

A broadcaster works to transform barren airwaves into radio transmissions, just as a farmer works to transform barren tracts of land into farmland. The right of a farmer to keep the product of his labor was protected by the Homestead Act of 1862, which guaranteed him sovereign control of 160 acres of undeveloped land if he worked on it for five years. As Ayn Rand pointed out in her article, “The Property Status of Airwaves,” Congress ought to have enacted similar legislation for the first generations of broadcasters. Both radio transmissions and farmland are products of an individual’s thought and effort and thus ought to be his private property to control and profit from.

The drafters of the Radio and Communications Acts, however, brushed aside the Constitutional protection of property rights in their bid to control who and what ought to be on the airwaves.

To manage this newly looted “public property,” Congress installed government minders–the FCC–whom they charged with awarding broadcast licenses, forcing broadcasters to use the airwaves to serve whatever Washington happened to deem was in “the public interest, convenience and necessity,” and keeping “communications containing profane or obscene words or language” off the air.

More than half a century later, the FCC’s stranglehold on broadcasting remains uncontested. The liberals–for the sake of the “public interest”–want to use its power to break up media conglomerates like Clear Channel Communications. And conservatives–for the sake of the “public interest”–want to squash indecency.

This whole notion of the “public interest” is empty. The public is nothing more than a large number of individuals. So what serves the interest of the individual? The freedom to think and to profit from his hard work, which, in part, requires that his property rights be protected. Not only does such freedom encourage the creators of material and intellectual goods–including news and entertainment programs–to create more such goods, but it also sustains a just society.

Nevertheless, invoking the shibboleth of the “public interest” allows both liberals and conservatives to dress up their desire to arbitrarily control the goods created by productive individuals, under the ruse that, as members of the public, the producers may somehow benefit from such pilfering too, or at least that it is the “right thing to do.” The unvarnished truth–“our clique wants to hijack the radio that you have spent countless hours to create”–is just too nasty an assertion to get away with, at least in America.

So, by nationalizing the “public airwaves” and establishing the FCC as a watchdog for the “public interest,” New Deal era politicians handed today’s religious right the mechanism for censoring broadcasters on grounds of “indecency.” An even more ominous development, however, is the fact that today’s liberals are handing the mechanism for censoring political speech over to the despots who loom ahead.

Liberals have long advocated using the “public ownership” of the airwaves to meddle with political speech. The Communications Act contained a provision known as the Equal Time Rule, which requires broadcasters who grant air-time to a politician from one party to provide an equal amount of air-time to his opponent. The Fairness Doctrine, an FCC policy issued in 1949, pushed governmental interference in the realm of ideas even further by requiring broadcasters who aired editorial opinions to seek opposing opinions for rebuttal.

While these regulations do not rise to the level of full-blown censorship, they certainly infringe upon the station owner’s right to speak freely on his radio station. Think of the injustice of the devil’s bargain that forces a broadcaster to choose either to be silent on what may be a life-or-death issue, or to give a soap box to people who he thinks are wrong. In fact, the Fairness Doctrine itself, which was suspended in 1987, only stifled political discourse, as broadcasters would simply avoid putting political opinions on the air rather than lose audience ratings during the required but unpopular rebuttal broadcast.

Even worse is the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971, which limits the amount that individuals can give to candidates or political action committees. Such “reforms” actually limit the speech of American citizens, who are prohibited from communicating their thoughts simply because they choose to give others money to speak on their behalf. In 2002, this censorship of political speech was put into overdrive with the McCain-Feingold Act, which introduced outright bans on airing over the “public airwaves” any issue ads that mention a candidate 60 days before a general election.

And then there is the left’s crusade to break up large media corporations. Outraged over such trivial matters as their contention that media consolidation has resulted in bland music programming, and fueled by a scary desire to silence conservative talk radio, liberals have lobbied the FCC to strictly limit the number of stations a broadcaster can operate, in an attempt to hobble media outlets such as Clear Channel Communications. While they may succeed in tightening media ownership limits, this crusade achieves another purpose. The FCC’s regulatory Sword of Damocles gives liberals the means to threaten conservative broadcasters and thereby affect the content of their programming. A broadcaster such as Clear Channel has to think twice before airing anything that might give the left ammo at an upcoming FCC re-licensing hearing.

The left’s media anti-consolidation stratagem underscores the fact that private ownership is required for free expression of ideas. In order to communicate his thoughts, an individual must use some sort of physical means–whether that be a pen and paper, a computer, a lecture hall, a printing press, or a portion of the airwaves. If he does not own these means of communication, then he can be silenced by their confiscation, or, with the mere threat of confiscation, intimidated into silence. The FCC’s power to revoke a broadcaster’s license and divest him of stations is no different than the power to take a computer from an author, a lecture hall from a professor, or a printing press from a newspaper.

The fat hit the fire last fall when the liberals threatened to use this half-century stockpile of regulations to censor the media. The target of liberal ire was Sinclair Broadcasting, which, with its 62 television stations, was set to air a news documentary criticizing John Kerry just prior to the election.

A number of parallels can be drawn between Sinclair Broadcasting’s documentary and the infamous 60 Minutes segment on George W. Bush’s National Guard record–barring the blatant difference that the Sinclair documentary wasn’t based on forged documents. Both were news broadcasts; both had producers who were arguably sympathetic to the opposing candidate; both focused on the long-past military records of the candidates; both were scheduled to air before the election.

The response they drew, however, was not parallel. While the 60 Minutes piece received justifiable verbal flack from the right for relying on faked documents, the left threatened to throw every available piece of political speech regulation at Sinclair. The Kerry campaign–and some liberals who crawled out of the woodwork–insisted that the Equal Time Rule permitted them to hijack air time on Sinclair’s channels to counter, not political ads this time, but news programming. The left then threatened to bring their crusade against media consolidation to bear on Sinclair, urging the FCC to set ownership limits that would force a break-up of Sinclair Broadcasting–urges that were heard loud and clear by thuggish FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who described Sinclair’s actions as “proof positive of media consolidation run amok.” A number of liberals even argued that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance regulation prohibited Sinclair from broadcasting the documentary within sixty days of the election.

The result: Sinclair caved in to the threats and only aired a few minutes of the documentary in a news special subtitled “Politics, Pressure and the Media.” How much longer will it be before these threats are actually carried out on other news programs, like 60 Minutes?

Such speech controls imposed on the “public airwaves” are the tools that a home-grown Vladimir Putin or Ayatollah Khomeini may someday use to silence the media. Imagine the scenario: Just before an election an antagonistic media is accused of supporting the opposition and is prevented–in accordance with campaign finance laws and FCC regulations–from airing anything critical of the candidate over the “public airwaves.” Sadly, this outlandish scenario doesn’t seem so outlandish anymore.

And yet, it will not be the secular left who drags us into despotism. With the world-wide collapse of communism, liberals are stuck in the doldrums without an all-encompassing cause to rally behind. The winds of the future appear to belong to religious fundamentalists, who–with an organizational zeal that would shame the Bolsheviks who began their bloody crusade a century ago–are making their presence known at the ballot box, on the best seller lists, and even on Ivy League campuses.

This does not bode well for the future of free speech in the United States. While religious conservatives have long called for the censorship of obscenity, only the lunatic fringe has called for political censorship. But historically–and today in the devout Middle East–political censorship and religious authority have gone hand in hand. Indeed, the list of religious censorship is almost endless: the suppression of Greek and Roman thought during the Dark Ages, the Inquisition in Italy and Spain, the Puritans in Colonial America, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Mullahs in Iran.

This correlation is not a coincidence. The basis of religion is faith–that is, the acceptance of beliefs in the absence of evidence. Without evidence to point to, the faithful cannot persuade non-believers through rational discourse. In fact, any discussion of evidence that contradicts the faithful’s dogma becomes an intolerable threat to their religious conviction and must be silenced. Hence the history of religious censorship.

Take the case of Galileo. The Church Inquisitors who censored Galileo had–on the basis of faith–accepted the idea that the earth was the center of the cosmos. Indeed, in an orthodoxy assessment in 1616, the Church’s Holy Office ruled that Galileo’s argument for the Copernican doctrine that the Earth revolved around the Sun was “heretical inasmuch as it expressly contradicts the doctrines of Holy Scripture.” In the face of Galileo’s evidence the Church authorities were at a loss for words; they could not endeavor to change his mind by showing him evidence to the contrary, for, in the end, all they had to back up their dogma was empty faith. Thus they chose to shut him up.

This has been the path that the faithful have taken throughout history and the path that they will take in the future.

With such a storm gathering on the horizon, it is urgent that we privatize the “public airwaves,” abolish the FCC, and strike all legislation regulating political speech from the books; all in order to keep the mechanisms of censorship out of the hands of those who wish to keep us silent.

Paul Marshall lives in Caldwell, Idaho. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Albertson College and is a student in the Objectivist Academic Center.

Add Your Comments