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.

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