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FCC chair on Trump’s NBC tweet: ‘The FCC will stand for the First Amendment’

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (Pau Barrena/Bloomberg News)

The Federal Communications Commission doesn't have the power to revoke any NBC station's broadcast license over the content it produces, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Tuesday, putting a damper on recent suggestions by President Trump that NBC should be penalized for its critical coverage of the White House.

Pai's remarks, delivered at a Washington conference, aimed to settle a flare-up over media law stemming from an NBC report that depicted a president at odds with his most senior military advisers when he indicated that he wanted what amounted to a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Trump called the report “pure fiction.”

“I believe in the First Amendment,” Pai said at an event organized by George Mason University's Mercatus Center. “The FCC, under my leadership, will stand for the First Amendment. 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.”

Pai's remarks come days after Trump suggested NBC should lose its license.

It is important to point out that what Trump is suggesting is virtually an impossibility; the FCC issues licenses to specific TV stations (many of which may be affiliated with NBC) but not to NBC itself. Those licenses come up for renewal only every eight years. While the FCC could theoretically decide not to renew a particular station's license, it is extremely rare for the FCC to proactively revoke a license, much less on the grounds that its content is objectionable.

For Pai to rule out revoking the license of an NBC station over its newscasts, then, is “stating the obvious,” said Andrew Schwartzman, a communications lawyer at Georgetown University. He added that Pai declined to answer a more important question: Whether Pai might prevent a station's license from being renewed in the future amid political demands from the president.