May 5, 2009 | Commentary on Regulation, National Security and Defense

Free Speech in Defense of Liberty is No Vice

history often books a room at Washington, D.C.'s Mayflower Hotel. It was there that Franklin Roosevelt penned "nothing to fear but fear itself" for his first inaugural address. Harry Truman lived there for most of his first 100 days as president.

Last summer, after ending her run for the White House, Hillary Clinton booked the Mayflower to introduce some 300 of her top donors to Barack Obama.

Last week, the venerable hotel may have hosted some history again.

More than a dozen top talk radio hosts and producers gathered there to discuss what to do about various plans emanating from Washington. Plans to throttle talk radio.

The talkers are worried. And they should be. What's at stake is not just their livelihoods, but the weapon most vital to our national security: Free speech.

Washington liberals generally hate talk radio for a pretty simple reason: Most all successful talkers are conservative. Liberal talk radio barely exists.

It's not for that the Left hasn't tried. Libs launched their own radio network, Air America, in 2004. But advertisers have been hard to come by. That might be because "progressive" talking heads rejoice in attacking free markets, corporate America, and everything that emits CO2. Many advertisers are leery of feeding the mouths that bite them. Of course, the abysmally low ratings of lefty talkers are unappealing as well.

While liberal talkers still struggle to find an audience, conservative talk radio is a forceful presence in public debates--particularly when national security is at risk. There is little question that talk radio fueled the popular backlash against the Bush Administration's proposal to grant amnesty to the millions living unlawfully in the United States.

And it's not just media giants like Rush Limbaugh who make waves. Hundreds of hometown-talkers at mom and pop stations pointed out that granting amnesty would just encourage more people to come here illegally, overwhelming any effort to keep our borders safe, secure, and sovereign.

It's this kind of impact that frustrates liberals and prompts them to calls for the reinstating the Orwellian-monikered "fairness doctrine." Incorporated into Federal Communications Commission regulations in 1967, this dogmatic doctrine required broadcasters to devote equal time to discussing "both sides" of controversial issues.

The doctrine, however, was anything but fair. It provided no clear standard for determining what was "controversial." It was also hard to figure out who represented the "sides," since many controversial topics inspire far more than two viewpoints.

With all this uncertainty, the doctrine wound up having a chilling effect on free speech. It dissuaded broadcasters from tackling tough subjects at all, out of fear it would get them crosswise of some unelected regulator, who would then yank their license.

During the Reagan era, the FCC repealed the most egregious parts of the doctrine--and conservative talk radio was born. Now Washington wants it back.

Other regulatory threats to free speech lurk out there as well. One idea, called "localism," is little more than a way to sneak the Fairness Doctrine in through the back door. It would require stations to let boards of local citizens determine whether their programming meets the needs of the local community.

Such boards are an open invitation for activists to skewer free speech they think is inappropriate. Stunningly, Clear Channel Communications, one of the nation's largest radio networks, has already ordered their local stations to set up these star chambers of political correctness.

These are troubling developments. The need for free speech has never been more important, particularly regarding national security issues. In the first 100 days, mainstream media have been more lapdog than watchdog.

They've allowed the Obama administration to change or reverse long-standing policies ranging from Cuba to missile defense with virtually no public analysis, discussion, or debate. Now, the administration is also preparing to bring up a new "border-busting" amnesty bill.

The last thing talk radio needs now is a muzzle. What's needed is a new "Mayflower" compact of independent voices speaking in defense of free speech on America's airwaves. So talkers, keep talking!

James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in the DC Examiner