Will we let government squelch political speech?

October 29, 2008|By RON SMITH

It's hard to think of anything less liberal than a liberal with power. The people who peddle themselves as conservatives without being conservative in any real sense whatsoever are bad enough, I admit, what with their insistence that we shield ourselves from terrorists bent on harming us by waging perpetual war in Eurasia while establishing a surveillance state here at home.

Who could possibly object to something called the USA PATRIOT Act? Perhaps you've forgotten that some genius figured out that titling the proposed law as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act would yield the soul-stirring acronym used to sell the bill as something necessary. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said in defense of the bill, "We have used the tools provided in the PATRIOT Act to fulfill our first responsibility to protect the American people. ... We have used these tools to provide the security that ensures liberty." When hearing crapola like that, one should remember Ben Franklin's admonition about sacrificing essential liberty for a little temporary safety.

In the post-9/11 panic, our elected representatives hurriedly agreed, in a display of bipartisan near-unanimity, to grant the executive branch a broad authority that could and would be misused. This paradigm applies: "If the Evil Party and the Stupid Party agree on something, that thing must be both evil and stupid." Think of NAFTA.

Now, it's likely, judging from the polls and what's in the air as Election Day nears, that one party, this time the Democrats, will again control both the executive and legislative branches of our enormous federal government. As someone who yearns for divided government because both parties have proved themselves incapable of restraint when all the power is possessed by either of them, this isn't good news.

Which brings me back to the opening sentence above. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other powerful Democratic lawmakers are on record favoring the restoration of the Fairness Doctrine, which was a policy of the Federal Communications Commission requiring that broadcast license holders present controversial issues in an honest, equitable and balanced manner. The Fairness Doctrine was withdrawn in 1985, shortly after I began doing a radio talk show. If it had not been, it's unlikely that my subsequent career would have been possible. Talk radio became a commercially successful format because conservative hosts were able to find large enough audiences to make it so.

It's hardly a secret that liberals dominate most of the media, including Hollywood. Talk radio is, however, a conservative bastion, and liberal hosts have had a hard time being successful in the medium. There are many theories about why this is so; my own is that liberals have a hard time defending their policies and preferences when confronted live by those who disagree with them. Mario M. Cuomo, the former N.Y. governor, had a show for a short time and seemed astonished that anyone would call in and dispute something he had asserted. He was used to giving speeches, not debating what he said in them.

Restoration of the Fairness Doctrine would probably end the commercial viability of most radio talk stations. It's called the "Hush Rush" bill. The idea is that if the hundreds of radio stations that carry Rush Limbaugh's show are forced to give equal time to a liberal, they couldn't afford to do so. Obviously, this is of concern to me, but it should be of concern to any American who thinks the First Amendment to the Constitution is first for a reason.

Their number may be dwindling. According to a Rasmussen poll in August, 47 percent of likely voters supported the idea that broadcasters should be forced to offer equal amounts of conservative and liberal commentary.

Sen. Barack Obama has finessed the issue when queried about it. Would a President Obama veto a measure restoring the Fairness Doctrine? We don't know. Would lots of his supporters like to muzzle political talk radio? You bet. But the Founders of this nation were explicit about this matter, and they were correct. Political speech must be protected from governmental interference.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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