On Sept. 21, Holly Ramer, an Associated Press reporter, was accompanying Bill Bradley on his campaign rounds in Concord, N.H. She wrote that during an interview on New Hampshire Public Radio's "The Exchange," the presidential candidate said that special-interest groups placing political ads on radio or television should be given free air time or, in fairness, should have to pay the other side of that issue the cost of an opposing ad.
"If you're going to buy issue ads," Bradley explained, "there's got to be equal time for the other side." He called this fee to be paid by the other side "a hundred percent tax."
A caller named Robin was greatly disturbed: "You are compelling people to support the opposing view," she said.
Politely, Bradley would not be dissuaded. "It's simply a way to make the market work," he said. I called Holly Ramer and asked whether, on reflection, the candidate had remembered that there might be a First Amendment problem when the state -- the only possible enforcer of his suggestion -- acted to compel speech.
"On his next stop," Ramer told me, "I asked Bradley if that is indeed his position. He said the same thing to me that he had said on the radio."
The senator's spokesman, Eric Hauser, however, says that Bradley was engaging in a hypothetical. "He's not necessarily advocating the proposal."
But Bradley's idea does recall the still-controversial Fairness Doctrine that used to be required of broadcast stations.
In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission created the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide equal time to each side of a public issue. Twenty years later, a unanimous Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that doctrine in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC.
Newspapers and other forms of printed speech could not be forced to give equal space because they are not licensed by the government. But, the court ruled, since broadcast frequencies are limited, the public interest required government intervention to ensure that other voices could be heard.
Later, Justice William O. Douglas, who had not participated in the decision, vigorously dissented from it: "TV and radio stand in the same protected position under the First Amendment as newspapers and magazines. The prospect of putting government in a position of control . . . is to me an appalling one, even to the extent of the Fairness Doctrine."
Bill Bradley, by the way, is in favor -- as he said in that New Hampshire radio interview -- of compelling free television time for candidates 60 days before an election. This is not a hypothetical, his spokesman says. Bradley does not fear this form of government enforcement of broadcast content.
In the early years of the Fairness Doctrine, I was working for a radio station in Boston. Soon after listener complaints of unfairness to the FCC resulted in mounting legal costs to answer stern FCC inquiries, the boss ordered us to cease all controversial broadcasting. This also happened at other stations.
Nonetheless, Congress, in 1987, passed a law codifying the Fairness Doctrine. But President Ronald Reagan vetoed it, saying that it violated the First Amendment and that, anyway, all the new cable channels and the profusion of radio stations no longer justified the argument that radio and TV outlets were scarce.
In the same year, the FCC itself unanimously abolished the Fairness Doctrine as an unconstitutional limitation of free speech. Some members of Congress still are eager to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, and they may find Bradley's hypothetical "hundred percent speech tax" encouraging.
While the debate about forced fairness on the air was going on, and as more stations fearfully reduced the free market place of ideas, I spoke to Richard Salant, then president of CBS News.
Salant, along with Fred Friendly, who also once held that position, was a dauntless protector of the First Amendment rights of broadcasters.
"Suppose," Salant told me, "the English governor had told Tom Paine that he could go ahead and publish all he liked -- but only if at the back of the pamphlets he also printed the royal governor's views. That command, far from being an implementation of free speech, would have been just the opposite."
Bill Bradley might keep Thomas Paine's unfettered speech in mind if he gets to be president. The first amendment does specify "freedom of speech, or of the press."