Freedom of the Air and the Public Interest: First Amendment Rights in Broadcasting to 1935

By Bensman, Marvin R. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Freedom of the Air and the Public Interest: First Amendment Rights in Broadcasting to 1935


Bensman, Marvin R., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Freedom of the Air and the Public Interest: First Amendment Rights in Broadcasting to 1935. Louise M. Benjamin. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL; Southern Illinois University Press, 2001. 308 pp. $39.95 hbk.

Dr. Louise Benjamin is presently an associate professor in the Department of Telecommunications at the University of Georgia. She has been interested in the relationship of free speech and broadcasting from her dissertation research for "Radio Regulation in the 1920s: Free Speech Issues in the Development of Radio and the Radio Act of 1927" (University of Iowa, 1985).

This work is an in-depth historical study that reflects the increased interest in the genesis of regulation. The issues raised in the early days have a resonance and a direct bearing on developing new technologies. As the pace of changes accelerates, the same basic issues influence the fashioning of the relationships among the parties involved. First Amendment issues, it is obvious, are never out-of-fashion.

There has always been, in my opinion, too much concentration on the Radio Conferences held by the Department of Commerce when looking at the beginnings of broadcast regulation. Staff debates and negotiations with the interested parties did so much of the developmental work on regulation formalities. With this work Dr. Benjamin has advanced that view by taking a number of other concurrent aspects of legislative, legal, and business history and linking them meaningfully. This results in a balanced analysis of the evolution of free speech concerns, which culminated in the definitional perception of the meaning "public interest" in the Radio Act of 1927 and subsequent Communications Act of 1934.

While other historians have focused on congressional intent in the formation of the Radio and Communications Acts, Dr. Benjamin considers the issues of censorship, creation of a regulatory agency, monopoly, and the right of broadcasters to use the medium from the point of view of all the parties involved in the debate. By utilizing both legislative and legal history, she casts a light on interrelationships that is often overbalanced in one direction or the other.

Major decisions had to be made at the beginning of broadcasting as to who should be allowed access to the airwaves, what could be censored, and should it be government or broadcast owners that did the censoring.

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