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Fairness Doctrine

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Overview Edit

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) that required broadcast licensees to cover issues of public importance and to do so in a fair manner. In practice, it required broadcasters to identify issues of public importance, decide to cover those issues, and then to afford the best representatives of the opposing views on the issue the opportunity to present their case to the community.

Issues of public importance were not limited to political campaigns. Nuclear plant construction, workers’ rights, and other issues of focus for a particular community could gain the status of an issue that broadcasters were required to cover. Therefore, the Fairness Doctrine was distinct from the so-called “equal time” rule, which requires broadcasters to grant equal time to qualified candidates for public office, because the Fairness Doctrine applied to a much broader range of topics.

On August 22, 2011, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski announced the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine:

The elimination of the obsolete Fairness Doctrine regulations will remove an unnecessary distraction. As I have said, striking this from our books ensures there can be no mistake that what has long been a dead letter remains dead. The Fairness Doctrine holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas and was properly abandoned over two decades ago. I am pleased we are removing these and other obsolete rules from our books.

Constitutional issue Edit

Any attempt to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine likely would be met with a constitutional challenge. Those opposing the doctrine would argue that it violates their First Amendment rights. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine, but applied a lower standard of scrutiny to the First Amendment rights of broadcasters than it applies to other media. Since that decision, the Supreme Court’s reasoning for applying a lower constitutional standard to broadcasters’ speech has been questioned.

Furthermore, when repealing the doctrine, the FCC found that, as the law stood in 1987, the Fairness Doctrine violated the First Amendment, even when applying the lower standard of scrutiny to the doctrine. No reviewing court has examined the validity of the agency’s findings on the constitutional issue. Therefore, whether a newly instituted Fairness Doctrine would survive constitutional scrutiny remains an open question.

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