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Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 1999 /1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Bill Bradley's speech tax -- ON SEPT. 21, HOLLY RAMER, an Associated Press reporter, was accompanying Bill Bradley on his campaign rounds in Concord, N.H. She wrote that during an interview on New Hampshire Public Radio's "The Exchange," the presidential candidate proposed that special-interest groups placing political ads on radio or television should be given free air time or, in fairness, should have to pay the other side of that issue the cost of an opposing ad.

"If you're going to buy issue ads," Bradley explained, "there's got to be equal time for the other side." He called this "a 100 percent tax" to be paid to the other side.

A caller named Robin was greatly disturbed: "You are compelling people to support the opposing view."

Politely, Bradley would not be dissuaded. "It's simply a way to make the market work," he said. I called Holly Ramer and asked whether, on reflection, the candidate had remembered that there might be a First Amendment problem when the state -- the only possible enforcer of his plan -- acted to compel speech.

"On his next stop," Ramer told me, "I asked Bradley if that is indeed his position. He said the same thing to me that he had said on the radio."

Bradley's concept of forced fairness in political dialogue is not entirely new.

In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission created the "Fairness Doctrine."

Broadcasters had to provide equal time to each side of a public issue. Twenty years later, a unanimous Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that doctrine (Red Lion Broadcasting Co. vs. FCC).

Newspapers and other forms of printed speech could not be forced to give equal space because they are not licensed by the government. But, the Court ruled, since broadcast frequencies are limited, the public interest required government intervention to ensure that other voices could be heard.

Later, Justice William O. Douglas, who had not participated in the earlier decision, vigorously dissented from it: "TV and radio stand in the same protected position under the First Amendment as newspapers and magazines. The prospect of putting government in a position of control... is to me an appalling one, even to the extent of the Fairness Doctrine."

"Talk ain't cheap. Pass the dollars!"
Bill Bradley, by the way, is in favor -- as he said in that New Hampshire radio interview -- of compelling free television time for candidates 60 days before an election. He does not fear this form of government enforcement of broadcast content either.

In the early years of the Fairness Doctrine, I was working for a radio station in Boston. Soon after listener complaints of unfairness to the FCC resulted in mounting legal costs to answer stern FCC inquiries, the boss ordered us to cease all controversial broadcasting. This also happened at other stations.

Nonetheless, Congress, in 1987, passed a law codifying the Fairness Doctrine. But it was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan, who said it violated the First Amendment, and that the proliferation of cable channels and radio stations nullified the argument that radio and TV outlets were scarce.

In the same year, the FCC itself unanimously abolished the Fairness Doctrine as an unconstitutional limitation of free speech. There are still members of Congress eager to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. Apparently, President Bradley would agree.

While the debate about forced fairness on the air was going on, and as more stations fearfully left the free marketplace of ideas, I spoke to Richard Salant, then president of CBS News.

Salant, along with Fred Friendly, who had also once been president of CBS News, was a dauntless protector of the First Amendment rights of broadcasters.

"Suppose," Salant told me, "the English governor had told Tom Paine that he could go ahead and publish all he liked -- but only if at the back of the pamphlets, he also printed the Royal Governor's views. That command, far from being an implementation of free speech, would have been just the opposite."

On Sept. 21, Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson asked Bill Bradley the following question: "If the NAACP ran an ad promoting racial equality, would Bradley's bureaucrats impose 'a 100 percent tax' on the NAACP to pay for equal time ads by the Ku Klux Klan?"

It would be instructive to find out how deeply each presidential candidate has thought about the dangers to the First Amendment from those who, with the best of intentions, undermine it.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Ammendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, NEA