Freedom of Speech in Broadcasting

2012-06-26 12:08:31

Broadcasters enjoy free speech rights under the First Amendment, but not to the same degree as their colleagues in the print or online media.

One rationale for the differential treatment is that broadcasting—unlike other media in the United States—is licensed by the federal government. When Congress first addressed the licensing issue in the 1920s, it was decided that the government should not own the broadcast system in this country but instead should regulate it to ensure that broadcasters operate in the ‘‘public interest, convenience, and necessity.’’

At that time, broadcasters asked the government to intervene because the spectrum of available frequencies was limited, and amateurs too often usurped the airwaves space others had occupied. This scarcity of available spectrum space was another reason for government to step in and create some system of order. As the industry developed throughout the twentieth century, however, broadcasters grew weary of the government’s interference in their operations. In the 1980s, Congress and the courts relaxed a number of the programming requirements on broadcasters, but some controversial content restrictions remain.

Broadcasters, for instance, may not air indecent material between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. The United States Supreme Court has upheld that rule as it affects broadcasting, but has struck down a similar restriction as applied to the Internet. Print media face no such restrictions.

Likewise, in the political arena, broadcasters are required to provide equal opportunities for candidates to appear on the air. Print and online media have no similar space requirements.


References and Further Reading

  • Carter, T. Barton, et al. The First Amendment and the Fifth Estate. New York: Foundation Press, 1999.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica, 438 U.S. 726 (1978)
  • Miami Herald Pub. Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241 (1974)
  • Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997)
  • Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C. } 315(a)
  • Radio Act of 1927, 44 Stat. 1162

See also Broadcast Regulation; Cameras in the Courtroom; Communications Decency Act (1996); Fairness Doctrine; Federal Communications Commission; Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241 (1974); Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969); Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997)