FCC in Newsrooms: Proposed Study Prompts First Amendment Concerns

Friday, 21 Feb 2014 12:40 PM

By Michael Mullins

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The FCC's proposed presence in newsrooms across the country has become increasingly worrisome for First Amendment advocates.

The agency has proposed an initiative to monitor newsrooms for fairness in their coverage and potentially crack down on "perceived station bias," according to one of the agency's commissioners.

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In an attempt to quell concerns, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the FCC "has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters" in a letter addressed to House Republicans that was released on Thursday.

The letter to House Republicans did not sway Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn's concerns over the initiative.

"Everybody should be incredibly concerned," Blackburn told NewsmaxTV's "Steve Malzberg Show" on Thursday. "I do believe that that would be a violation of our First Amendment rights."

The controversy arose after FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal earlier in the month in which he said the FCC planned to send researchers to grill reporters, editors, and station owners about how they decide which stories run, as part of a study called the Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs.

Pai argued that the government "has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories," and wrote it's a "dangerous" first step toward "newsroom policing," adding that the study is reminiscent of the now-defunct controversial Fairness Doctrine.

In his letter to House Republicans, Wheeler insisted that the FCC study would not result in the policing of newsrooms, but rather it's a "tool intended to help the Commission consider effective, pro-competitive policies that would encourage new entrants," the National Journal reported.

Wheeler added that the FCC was currently in the process of revising the study to address the concerns expressed by some in the house, and that the program would be voluntary.

In an interview with NewsmaxTV on Thursday, former attorney and legal analyst Kendall Coffey scoffed at the FCC's vow that the surveillance program can be defined as voluntary.

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"It's going to raise big, big First Amendment questions," Coffey said.

"You don't have to go in, burn down the TV station, trash a newsroom to violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment can be violated by what they call a chilling effect," Coffey added. "In other words, people are simply deterred or intimidated about expressing their First Amendment rights and this seems to be exactly the kind of scenario which is going to tee up a strong challenge."

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