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Opinion Trump forces FCC chairman to declare loyalty to First Amendment

President Trump speaks with the media on Tuesday at the White House in Washington. (Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Ajit Pai offered what sounded like a mission statement.

At an event this morning at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, the FCC chairman was asked about the latest affronts by President Trump to the First Amendment. After NBC News published a report that Trump favored boosting the U.S. nuclear stockpile, he tweeted some threats at the network:

Asked about his reaction to those tweets, Pai said, “I will reiterate what I have said for many years at the FCC, up to and including last month … I believe in the First Amendment. The FCC [Federal Communications Commission] under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment. And under the law, the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.”

It’s more elementary than that, of course. As this blog pointed out last week, neither Trump nor the FCC can revoke a “license” for the “NBC” network. Such a license doesn’t exist. However, NBC-affiliate broadcasters have licenses that come up for renewal every eight years. And NBC has licenses for the so-called owned-and-operated stations in several large cities — including Washington, New York and Los Angeles.

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told CNN’s Brian Stelter over the weekend: “History won’t be kind to silence,” said Rosenworcel, who was first nominated by President Barack Obama and later by Trump. “I think it’s important for all the commissioners to make clear that they support the First Amendment, and that the agency will not revoke a broadcast license simply because the president is dissatisfied with the licensee’s coverage.”

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And so Pai, who was designated as FCC chairman by Trump in January, has checked off that box. Longtime FCC watcher Andrew Jay Schwartzman wasn’t pleased with the reaction. “Commissioner Pai’s statement is a profile in cowardice,” said Schwartzman in a statement of his own. “Unlike his predecessors, who have forthrightly stood up to Presidential interference, he continues to equivocate. He needs to say that President Trump has no right to interfere in the FCC’s licensing process and he will ignore the President’s pressure.”

What’s eerie is that the president of the United States is the guy who forced the FCC chairman to “reiterate” his commitment to the First Amendment. In a Sept. 15 address at a symposium titled “The Future of Speech Online,” Pai identified collegiate intolerance as a threat to freedom of expression, as he expressed worries that the “shared cultural commitment to the importance of free speech … is beginning to unravel.” He got more specific: “Fewer today seem to be willing to defend to the death others’ right to say things with which they might disagree. The situation on many college campuses is especially distressing. The cases are legion, so much so that simply reciting a college’s name evokes the issue: Evergreen State, Yale, and just yesterday, Berkeley. The common thread is the belief, shared by too many, that those with views perceived as unpopular or offensive should be silenced.”

That “common thread” weaves straight across the Oval Office.