Long-Term Consequences of the
Telecommunications Act of 1996:
New Rules of the Game
Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or of
— First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Journalists in the United States have historically enjoyed an elevated professional status: theirs is perhaps the only job offered explicit legal protection in the Constitution of the United States. But this protection has primarily protected the speech of journalists who write for products printed on paper. Although the terms speech and press have been generally interpreted by judges and legal scholars to extend beyond the printed word, electronic media have always enjoyed a much lower level of legal protection and have been subject to direct content regulation by the congressionally mandated Federal Communications Commission (FCC).1
As the nation's system of communication has become more and more electronic, journalism is increasingly being subjected to real and potential legal restrictions, both by governmental agencies in the United States and around the world. As Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of NBC News and PBS, has observed, “Each new information technology has received less constitutional protection than its predecessors. It's as if the First Amendment has had to be reinvented for every new medium.”2 This chapter examines the evolution of the twenty-first-century legal framework to regulate electronic communications, including journalism, in the United States and around the world.