The Role of the Federal Communications Commission on the Path from the Vast Wasteland to the Fertile Plain

By Abernathy, Kathleen | Federal Communications Law Journal, May 2003 | Go to article overview

The Role of the Federal Communications Commission on the Path from the Vast Wasteland to the Fertile Plain


Abernathy, Kathleen, Federal Communications Law Journal


In 1961, Federal Communications Commission ("FCC" or "Commission") Chairman Newton Minow expressed a lack of confidence in the services provided by broadcasters. (1) He challenged people to sit in front of their television for a day to see if they would observe, as he had, a vast wasteland. The Federal Communications Law Journal has asked us to take up Minow's challenge today. Yet, as a current FCC Commissioner, I find that it is not my place to make value judgments on the content of broadcasts.

Newton Minow's speech goes to the heart of the most basic constitutional right, the right of free speech as protected by the Constitution. I believe that FCC Commissioners must tread carefully in regulating, or even passing judgments, on the quality of programming content. In exercising our regulatory duties, we should be mindful of the need to protect and preserve free speech. In this regard, I am guided by two principles. First, Congress has legislated standards for the Commission to apply, and to the extent that courts hold these standards to be constitutionally permissible, we should enforce Congress's laws and courts' decisions regardless of our own personal predilections. Second, the Commission must refrain from making personal judgments about the messages that the media delivers. The Commission's area of responsibility is to enforce Congress's laws. Broadcasters, in contrast, are the proper parties to make judgments regarding overall media content. It is important to recognize that broadcasters do not act alone. The American public places an important check on the role of the media.

With respect to congressional guidance, legislation gives the FCC direction on how to balance the right of free speech against other public interests. For example, Congress directed the Commission to enforce restrictions on indecency (2) and, at renewal time, to consider the extent to which a licensee has served the educational and informational needs of children. (3) As a result of this guidance, the FCC adopted clear and explicit regulations on when indecent programming may be aired (4) and how broadcasters must comply with their duty to serve the educational and informational needs of children. (5) Congress also gave the Commission authority to prescribe guidelines for the identification and rating of programming that contains sexual or violent material, and to require distributors of such video programming to transmit such ratings in the event that voluntary guidelines for doing so had not been established by the industry. (6) In these areas, Congress crafted a careful balance between protecting First Amendment rights, on one hand, and on the other, protecting our children from objectionable material and providing for their educational growth. Thus, where Congress has, in a constitutionally permissible way, balanced other important governmental interests against free speech interests, the Commission is bound to follow the congressional directives.

In other areas, however, Congress has not legislated. In these circumstances, the Commission is often pressured to act on its own by regulating, or even passing judgment, on what are deemed to be "good" or "bad" messages, or on what is "good" or "bad" television. Those who encourage the Commission to act are often motivated by what they truly believe would be a desirable result. On these issues, however, the Commission cannot begin to stray across the line and start regulating messages based on content. We should not be making personal judgments that reflect our own tastes or desires. Indeed, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently held that the FCC cannot use its general powers under Section 1 of the Communications Act of 1934 for authority to regulate program content:

   To avoid potential First Amendment issues, the very general
   provisions of [section] 1 have not been construed to go so far as
   to authorize the FCC to regulate program content. 

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Role of the Federal Communications Commission on the Path from the Vast Wasteland to the Fertile Plain
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.