FCC Finally Buries 'Long Dead' Fairness Doctrine

By Matt Cover | August 24, 2011 | 6:09 PM EDT

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in his office in Washington on March 12, 2010. (AP File Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(CNSNews.com) Twenty-four years after it stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine, the Federal Communications Commission is finally abolishing the regulation that mandated broadcasters to air both sides of a political issue.

“The elimination of the obsolete Fairness Doctrine regulations will remove an unnecessary distraction,” FCC Chairman Julius said in a statement Monday. “Striking this from our books ensures there can be no mistake that what has long been a dead letter remains dead.”

Enacted in 1949, the doctrine has long been recognized as hampering free speech because it resulted in broadcasters shying away from airing opinionated programming.

“The Fairness Doctrine holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas and was properly abandoned over two decades ago,” Genachowski said. “I am pleased we are removing these and other obsolete rules from our books.”

The Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to give airtime to both sides of any contentious political issue, with violators at risk of losing their licenses. It was formally rejected by the FCC in 1987, after the commission found it was both contrary to the public interest and unconstitutional, and voted to stop enforcing it.

“It hasn't been enforced since 1987 but was still on the books,” FCC spokesman Neil Grace told CNSNews.com.

This will now change as the FCC moves to formally erase the long-dead speech regulation from its rulebook. It will take approximately two extra weeks for the government to amend the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), its formal regulatory code.

Once the CFR is amended, the Fairness Doctrine will be no more.

However, some critics warn that the FCC can still regulate speech through the “localism” principle, based on the long-standing tradition that broadcasters must serve the interests of their local communities.

They say the FCC could invoke the principle in regulating how much time broadcasters must dedicate to so-called local issues – in effect limiting the amount of time they can give to programming their listeners want to hear.

FCC commissioner Robert McDowell told Fox News’ Power Play Live program earlier this month that the FCC was currently engaged in a review of its broadcast licensing rules, as well as its localism standards.

“We’re in the midst of a quadrennial review of our media ownership rules,” McDowell said. “Usually dovetailed with that is this proceeding on localism. So, you’ll start to hear about that perhaps later this year.”

McDowell said concerns that localism could amount to the Fairness Doctrine by another name were “legitimate” because both ideas accomplish essentially the same goal – content regulation.

“It is a legitimate fear because this is all about content control and the government having this watchful eye – giving broadcasters this hairy eyeball – of what it is they’re airing, and political speech is especially vulnerable to this.”

McDowell said that the government could impose content restrictions by threatening broadcasters’ licenses.

Licenses currently have to be renewed every eight years, although McDowell noted that “some groups want to shorten that process to every three years.”