Micro-Radio Poses Big Constitutional Question

Article excerpt

Important, high-profile constitutional issues - decency on the air and Internet, for example, and religious expression in public schools - overshadow another vexing, largely unreported First Amendment debate. It's about the relationship between free enterprise and free-speech rights in the critical public sphere of broadcasting.

A test case involving a so-called "radio pirate" is unfolding before a federal district judge in Oakland, Calif. It could force the federal courts to examine whether regulatory rules that reserve coveted TV and radio channels on public air space for commercial interests deprive citizens of their constitutional rights.

Micro-radio is a late-model expression of civil disobedience. It takes the form of broadcasting to a few square blocks or several square miles over low-power FM stations. These stations are deemed illegal because radio rebels operate them without a required federal license. To the consternation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), local authorities, and commercial broadcasters, the protest movement is spreading. Plug in a microphone, record player, and tape deck to a shoebox-size FM transmitter you can build for $500 and you're a full-fledged radio revolutionary. Radio guerrillas operate from homes, basements, garages, and backpacks. By conservative estimate, 300 to 400 illegal micro-radio stations are on the air from San Francisco to New York City. They employ unused frequencies, trying to avoid interfering with licensed stations. The micro-radio movement includes minority voices speaking to or for inner cities, as well as ideologues for a variety of populist and religious causes, including freedom of speech. In Decatur, Ill., Napoleon Williams ran his unlicensed Black Liberation Radio out of his home until last May. Six commercial radio stations exist in Decatur, but Mr. Williams argued that they refuse to serve African-American interests. Since 1990, he has aired such issues as poverty and police brutality - often in terms officials considered inflammatory. In May, a local-state SWAT team seized his equipment and put him in jail. Doug Brewer aired self-described "populist rap" to listeners in the Tampa Bay area until Nov. 19, when a 20-person "task force" led by federal marshals put him in handcuffs and seized his equipment. …


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