The Federal Communications Commission has voted to recommend elimination of the Fairness Doctrine and equal-time provisions. FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, writing in The Post (op-ed, Sept. 20), said the commission wants to "extend the full rights of the First Amendment to the electronic media." He argued that Section 315 of the Communications Act is "censorship," "shackles the country's most pervasive medium with government oversight" and raises a "frightening specter . . . antithetical to our most precious freedom: speech itself."
That is an overblown characterization of a policy that the Supreme Court has consistently upheld as serving the First Amendment right of the public to have the fullest access to a diversity of information and ideas.
The First Amendment was first for a reason. The framers of the Constitution, with memories of political persecution still fresh in their minds, institutionalized the rights of the press to publish what it wished, and for people to speak out about whatever they wished, free from government interference. Underlying that right was the principle that democracy required robust public debate, that citizens should, in order to make informed political judgments, be able to read and hear as many conflicting ideas as possible.
We must look carefully at the arguments being used to suppport the abolition of Section 315, for they are based neither on true First Amendment values nor on any understanding of today's broadcasting realities.
The first argument is constitutional: that Section 315 is an infringement on freedom of press and speech. The Supreme Court has clearly held such regulation constitutional, balancing the public's right to hear conflicting views, and broadcasters' editorial discretion.
The other argument advanced by Fowler is that Section 315 was designed to compensate for a scarcity of broadcast outlets, but that with the advent of new technologies such as cable television, direct broadcast satellite and low- power television--scarcity no longer exists.
Many of my colleagues and I have fought for years to allow these new competing technologies to flower. The prospect of this great multiplicity of communications services is exciting -- but for most Americans it is still only a prospect. An exhaustive report now being issued by the House subcommittee on telecommunications empirically documents this. Direct broadcast satellites and low-power television, for example, are not yet available at all.
And most citizens do not yet even have access to cable television. Detroit, for example, is not yet wired for cable, nor are St. Louis, Denver, nor three-fourths of New York City. Nor, as we well know, is Washington.
We are approaching a time when spectrum scarcity will no longer limit the number of channels of available video information, and thus, the availability of diversity, on this most pervasive of all media. When the public has access to a full range of opinion from a full range of competing video channels then, and only then, will the scarcity rationale no longer be valid.
In the House, we are now exploring how we can assure the public a true abundance of competing information sources, and how we can promote and encourage First Amendment values through the new technologies. When the public has those assurances, then we can safely eliminate Section 315.