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Fairness Regulations Chill Free Speech

A new book released this week entitled “The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement” contains some important historical warnings for those who seek to impose fairness regulations on Internet speech.

The author, Paul Matzko, reminds us of a forgotten history—a robust conservative talk radio industry in the 1950s and ‘60s, with hosts that drew audiences as large as or larger than Rush Limbaugh does today. These conservative radio hosts generally opposed the Kennedy administration’s policies, and more than once motivated the public to contact their senators and representatives to defeat Kennedy administration policy initiatives.

The result? The Kennedy administration set out to intimidate and destroy conservative talk radio, viewing it as a top threat to Kennedy’s re-election. Matzko uncovers transcripts and tape recordings of White House conversations where Kennedy administration personnel conceived and planned a campaign against conservative talk radio hosts, using a combination of targeted IRS audits against the hosts and their broadcasters, and the Federal Communication Commission’s “Fairness Doctrine,” which conveniently had just been formulated a few years earlier.

Under the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters had to be editorially neutral and grant equal time to opposing viewpoints. This created a significant editorial burden for broadcasters, which in itself discouraged them from carrying opinion programming. But violations of the Fairness Doctrine carried penalties, ramping up from fines to loss of broadcast licenses worth millions of dollars. Broadcasters weren’t going to take that risk, and so they stopped carrying opinion programming. This is the chilling effect that fairness and neutrality regulations have on free speech.

Not until the Fairness Doctrine was abolished by the Reagan administration in 1987 was it possible for free speech to once again flourish in the broadcast medium, which made possible the kinds of opinion radio and cable TV programs we have today. Conservative talk radio, evening cable news opinion shows, and even The Daily Show would never have been possible under regimes like the Fairness Doctrine.

You can watch video of Paul Matzko’s discussion of these issues at a recent IPI Zoom policy discussion at this link.

Today, as many on the center-right are clamoring for neutrality and fairness regulations on social media platforms, they should be reminded that “those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” Under fairness or neutrality regulations for the internet, the most likely result is a chilling effect on internet free speech, under which platforms cannot run the liability risk of allowing political speech on their platforms.

We might not always like the results we get from relatively free, unregulated speech on private social media platforms, but it’s likely that the existing regime is far better for free speech in general (and for conservative speech in particular) than under some regime of government speech regulation.