A First Amendment victory over an intrusive federal government doesn’t come along every day, but thanks to a deafening outcry from the American people, the Obama administration has just backed down from an unconstitutional plan to put monitors in newsrooms in a dramatic fashion.
Recently, the Obama administration’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a program, euphemistically labeled a “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” to place government monitors in the newsrooms of TV networks, “news and talk-radio stations,” and newspaper companies across the United States.
Imagine FCC monitors peering over the shoulders of editors, producers and reporters as they make decisions about what news to air and how to communicate it to the public.
This monitoring program, as Orwellian as it sounds, moved along toward implementation this spring, completely out of the public spotlight. That is, until FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai sounded the alarm, exposing the FCC’s “plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run.”
He was rightly concerned, and the American people took notice.
FCC monitors in newsrooms across America would pose a monumental threat to free speech and freedom of the press. The FCC already exercises immense control over broadcast stations through license renewal every eight years. These monitors would give the FCC the ability to intimidate the press on a daily basis.
The fact is, this was not a “study” in any sense of the word. The FCC began by developing eight categories of information that it prejudged as the “critical information needs” of the American public.
Sending monitors into newsrooms would be nothing more than a witch hunt to intimidate stations that don’t fall in line with programming that conforms to the predetermined “needs” of the Obama administration.
According to the program’s design, the station owners, managers and reporters would be asked intrusive questions about their “news philosophy” and “target audience.”
If these questions sound eerily familiar, it’s because they are some of the same questions demanded of Tea Party, pro-life and other conservative groups who have been wrongly targeted by the Internal Revenue Service: What is your philosophy? Who are your members? What issues do you promote?
At the American Center for Law and Justice, we are keenly aware of this kind of unconstitutional abuse, having represented many of these targeted groups long before the IRS ever admitted to the targeting, and we continue to represent 41 of these groups in a lawsuit against the IRS.
The fact that the FCC would use these draconian tactics against the media is unconscionable.
The American people spoke out, and spoke with one voice. More than 80,000 Americans signed our petition to say no to FCC monitors in newsrooms. Dozens of media outlets condemned the program.
In one of the swiftest policy turnabouts we have ever witnessed, the FCC has responded, putting the brakes on the entire program.
In a statement issued Friday, the FCC acknowledged that this program “overstepped the bounds” of its authority. Moreover, it shelved the entire program until it could be further reviewed, promising that “[a]ny subsequent market studies conducted by the FCC, if determined necessary, will not seek participation from or include questions for media owners, news directors or reporters.”
This is a huge victory not only for freedom of the press, but for freedom of speech. The federal government has no place monitoring and intimidating the press, Christian radio stations and conservative media.
Monitoring and intimidating the media lies far outside the FCC’s congressional mandate, much less the bounds of constitutionally protected freedom of speech and of the press. Thankfully, the FCC agrees — for now.
The proposed program contained far more than just newsroom monitors. It attempted to expand its mandate beyond radio and TV broadcast media to newspapers and even websites, including “crawling” through “university websites, local school system websites, blogs,” and local government websites.
As the revisions take place, we will be watching and, hopefully, the FCC will be mindful of its constitutional bounds.
Nearly 230 years ago, Thomas Jefferson warned: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
Today, thanks to an American public that was willing to speak out, that liberty remains.
Jordan Sekulow is executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, where Matthew Clark is an attorney.
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