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October 13, 2017

Trump’s Attacks on First Amendment Rights Are Appalling

Could the Trump Administration shut down NBC?

First Amendment to the US Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

President Trump tweeted “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” He was enraged at what he says was a false story on NBC. Later he doubled down on his anti First Amendment sentiment: “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it,” I heard him say on CSPAN.

I’m not a member of the “resistance”; I support some of Trump’s policies and some of his actions; but I am appalled by these statements. Even if the NBC story is 100% wrong (it is thinly and anonymously sourced), the press has a right to be wrong. Reporterrs and editors often are. We can’t have a free press if there is some government agency deciding who is telling the truth and who gets to keep reporting. The whole point is that the press IS able and MUST be able to write whatever they want. We can turn off NBC in our houses but the government can’t do that to us. It’s OUR First Amendment right.

OK; we all agree on that. But could an administration which was so inclined actually take away NBC’s license? It’s unfortunately time to think about that.

On a superficial level, there’s no problem. NBC the network does not have a broadcast license because it doesn’t broadcast; it supplies content. Each of its over-the-air affiliates has its own license from the FCC. NBC owns only eleven stations; there are almost 200 separately owned affiliates. There would be a lot of licenses to take away, many held by rich and powerful people.

Moreover, since the demise of the “fairness doctrine” – needed when there were just a few broadcast licenses available in each area – the FCC has only considered technical and bureaucratic conditions in awarding and renewing broadcast licenses. Stations must stay within their allocated frequencies; can’t sell banned drugs; can’t knowingly abet a fraud (but let’s watch that!); have to pay their fees, file for renewal on time, and tell the truth in the paper work they file with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In theory a station could be shut down for pornography; that’s why certain words were banned on TV and radio. But that hasn’t even been threatened lately.

But let’s be paranoid. Broadcast licenses are worth hundreds of millions of dollars even now that most content stays on the Internet and isn’t broadcast at all. Suppose that the affiliates of an obstreperous network were suddenly threatened with license revocation for trivial technical violations – they probably exist and could certainly be alleged. Suppose a routine filing to move an antenna or make some other technical change were suddenly delayed almost indefinitely for “procedural” reasons. Might not the owner of the license pressure the network which supplies it with news to stop pissing off the President. All members of the FCC are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. FCC Chairman have been known to follow White House “guidance”. Business people have been known to bury their personal scruples to protect their investors.

It appears that the IRS was weaponized to some extent during the Obama administration. Could that happen with the FCC in the Trump administration? Unfortunately it’s the President himself who suggests the answer may be “yes”.

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