Television, the First Amendment,
and the Role of Government
People for Better TV, 1999
The basic rules which determine who gets
to use the public airwaves and how they get to use them are set
by our representatives in Congress. In both the 1934 Communications
Act and the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress determined that
broadcasters should get a free license to public airwaves to serve
the public interest, convenience, and necessity.
The Federal Communications Commission
is the independent agency which determines what is in the "public
interest." The FCC is the public's representative determining
the fine points of Congressional rules. Besides broadcasting (radio
and television), the FCC also oversees satellite, cable, and the
telephone industries. The FCC has five commissioners, two republicans
and two democrats, and a Chairman usually of the same party as
the President. These hotly contested political positions are decided
by the President and the opposing party in Congress. The FCC's
budget is determined by Congress.
The FCC often settles disputes between
members of the same industry, and among the different industries.
It also settles disputes between the industry and the public.
Viewers have the right to petition the FCC if they determine their
local television stations are not acting in the "public interest."
Viewers also have the right to participate in proceedings when
the FCC is creating rules to guide the broadcast industry.
Many broadcast businessmen argue that
the First Amendment should apply to television in just the same
way it applies to the newspaper business. . .that is, hands off.
However, because broadcasters are licensed to use a scarce public
property, the Supreme Court (even the most conservative of Supreme
Courts) has consistently ruled that with regard to the public
airwaves it is the First Amendment rights of the viewers, not
the broadcasters, which is paramount.1
Others, such as Bob Dole, have suggested
that if broadcasters want to be treated like the press they should
pay to use the public spectrum. . .after all the government doesn't
give the newspaper industry trees.
People for Better TV
818 18th Street, NW, Suite 505
Washington, DC 20006 1-888-37-4PBTV (1-888-374-7288)
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