Inside the First Amendment FCC study: Necessary report or ‘national news nanny’?

  • Written by Gene Policinski

  The First Amendment establishes our right to a press free from intrusion, regulation or intimidation by the government.
  As to a right to be free from questions by a national “news nanny,” it’s all in how you view the ultimate intent.
  A few weeks ago, a Republican appointee to the Federal Communications Commission kicked up a fuss — particularly among conservative groups — about a planned FCC study of how journalists make news decisions.
  Commissioner Ajit Pai wrote an Op-Ed column Feb. 10 in The Wall Street Journal saying the commission’s “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” or CIN, meant “the agency plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run,” starting with a pilot program in Columbia, S.C.
  “The purpose of the CIN,” Pai wrote, “ ... is to ferret out information from television and radio broadcasters about ‘the process by which stories are selected’ and how often stations cover ‘critical information needs,’ along with ‘perceived station bias’ and ‘perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.’”
  Noting that the FCC has the power to renew or deny broadcast licenses, Pai wrote that the voluntary study was anything but that. He wondered why the study also included newspapers, over which the FCC historically has had no authority.
  As happens in today’s polarized political environment, liberal observers took a different tack, saying the study was prepared with the help of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and was simply part of an ongoing FCC obligation to periodically report to Congress on how well the public gets information it needs, and what hurdles may exist to improving that process.
  On Feb. 21, the FCC backed away from its plan. “Any suggestion the Commission intends to regulate the speech of news media is false,” FCC spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said. A revised study will be conducted, but journalists and news media owners will not be asked to participate.
  So: An outright assault on a free press — with, as the more florid claims said, official “news monitors” in every newsroom? Or a benign bureaucratic survey that began more than two years ago, created in cooperation with the very journalists it was intended to examine?
  Lest we forget, there’s nothing in the First Amendment that protects the press from questions, criticism and review, by anybody. But when government does so, it merits extra caution and concern — if not claims that that “media sky is falling.” The government“s record on good intentions and the news media can provide enough cause to worry.
  Just seven years after the Bill of Rights, with its First Amendment, was adopted, Congress approved and President John Adams signed a law that provided for prosecution of editors critical of either one. Within a few years the law was allowed to expire, having lost public support after more than a dozen journalists were jailed under the pretense of inciting war with France, which some saw as a mere excuse to eliminate political opponents.
  Attempts by the government to restrain the press prior to publication have, through the years, ultimately have been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, notably in the so-called “Pentagon Papers” case in 1971 when the Nixon administration tried to prevent publication of a secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
  And the FCC itself created a prime example of good intentions-gone-wrong with the history of its Fairness Doctrine, enacted in 1949. The commission was concerned then about the concentration of news outlets in a few hands, and the doctrine required broadcasters to provide information and varied views on matters of public interest.
  Several decades later, it was evident virtually all electronic news outlets chose the safest path to avoid violating the doctrine: Providing no opinion. Once common “broadcast editorials” disappeared. Discarded by the FCC in 1987, the doctrine was made further obsolete by the proliferation of cable TV stations, and by the diversity of outlets and information available on the Internet — which some says makes the entire commission an anachronism and unneeded.
  Still, surveys show that broadcast TV remains the largest single medium by which the public gets news — and both liberals and conservatives find reason to regularly criticize all or part of that news media. Newspapers clearly face financial hurdles — and tens of thousands of jobs in journalism have been lost in the past 20 years.
  Yes, how well the news media are meeting their obligation to readers, viewers, listeners and users is a worthy subject of study — and is regularly, by non-profit organizations, private media monitoring groups and an ever-vocal host of individual critics.
  Regulators doing that very studying should raise caution, if not the panic voiced by some commentators. Might not a “study of the studies” and reviews of oft-expressed criticism be more efficient and just as informative for that portion of the FCC’s examination of the news media today?
  In addition to providing its critics with an easy target, the pilot FCC study also provided its own benediction: “Go forth and CIN no more.”

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Brewer, Garcia stand tall as champions of equal rights

Bobs Column - The B Side Jan Brewer and Orlando L. Garcia may not be household names, but the decisions they made Feb. 26 were monumental, and both individuals should be lauded as champions of equal rights who had the courage to take a stand against those who would deny those rights to some based on sexual orientation.
  Brewer is the governor or Arizona, the state where the Republican-controlled legislature amazingly approved a bill that would have given business owners the right to refuse service to gay people and others on religious grounds. Thankfully, Brewer did not let that happen.
  The Republican governor was under immense pressure to veto the legislation from business owners, who viewed the proposal as a financial disaster and a serious blemish to the reputation of a state that doesn’t need any more bad PR.
  I have no idea what motivated Brewer to veto this ridiculous legislation, but I’d like to think that one her first thoughts was to reject it simply because it was hateful and intolerant.
  Think about it for a moment. The legislation would have permitted a business owner who believed that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman to refuse goods and services to gay people. That’s the kind of forward, progressive thinking I’d be damn proud of as an Arizona resident.
  Of course, this is nothing new for the Grand Canyon State, which opposed making Martin Luther King Day a state holiday—a move that cost it the 1993 Super Bowl. The state also is known for prejudicial immigration laws.
  Let’s understand something. Gay people deserve the same rights and civil liberties as anyone else, including the right to marry and raise children. They’ve fought for years for these rights, and no battle waged by intolerant folks who hide behind religion to justify their cause will hold them back at this point. That’s difficult for some people to appreciate.
  But time moves on, as does society—most of society, anyway. Try to recall pictures from the 1960s of separate drinking fountains for black people or television footage of black students being denied admission to a southern university. Those images seem bizarre 50 years later. But at the time, that sort of bigotry made good sense to many people. How will today’s discriminatory behavior against gay people appear 50 year from now? Bizarre, I hope.
  The annual gay pride parade commemorates the anniversary 1969 Stonewall riots, an uprising between New York City youth and police officers following a raid of the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar. Four decades later, the NBA has welcomed its first openly gay player, and Missouri football player Michael Sam is expected to be a high pick in this year’s NFL draft.
  Meanwhile, there are those in Arizona who prefer things the way they’ve always been. The legislation, they argued, was designed to protect their religious freedoms. Brewer’s response was spot on. “Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value,” the governor said, “so is no discrimination.”
  Brewer’s actions should not overshadow those of Garcia, a federal judge in Texas, who struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Garcia ruled that the laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman violated the United States Constitution. That’s a major victory in a state like Texas.
  Garcia wrote that an amendment to the state Constitution that Texas voters approved in 2005 defining marriage as between a man and a woman — and two similar laws passed in 1997 and 2003 — denied gay couples the right to marry and demeaned their dignity “for no legitimate reason,” the New York Times reported.
  His ruling is the latest in a series of decisions overturning bans or lifting restrictions on same-sex marriage in several states. Virginia’s ban was recently overturned and Kentucky was told to honor same-sex marriages performed in other states. In Oklahoma, the state’s amendment barring same-sex marriage was recently deemed unconstitutional.
  You see, the resistance is waning. Open-mindedness and acceptance is surpassing narrow-mindedness and intolerance. Jan Brewer and Orlando Garcia are just two of the reasons why.

Inside the First Amendment - A ‘flash’ of insight on just how free is our free speech

  • Written by Gene Policinski’

  If you associate the First Amendment more with the rarified air of constitutional debate, or powdered wigs and colonial days, try thinking in more modern terms — say speed traps and blinking headlights.
  For most of us, much of the Bill of Rights comes into play infrequently, if ever. A few examples: According to a 2013 survey, only one in three U.S. households are home to a firearm (Second Amendment). And thankfully, protection in our lifetimes against illegal search and seizure (Fourth) or self-incrimination (Fifth) will be more legal theory rather than active tool.
  But the First Amendment — the nation’s “blue collar” amendment — goes to work every day alongside us. We regularly, if not daily, use the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition to worship as we will, to speak our minds freely, and to ask our elected leaders to make changes on matters of public interest.
  There are disputes over the way we apply those core freedoms, sometimes reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. But at other times, the legal collision and decision are more down-to-earth and closer to home. Case in point, Michael J. Elli challenged a city ordinance in his hometown, Ellisville, Mo., that permitted police to ticket drivers who flashed headlights to warn oncoming motorists approaching a speed trap.
  About 2:50 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2012, Elli flashed his headlights after passing police. He was stopped and ticketed. Elli faced a $1,000 fine, and later was warned by a municipal judge about a charge of “obstruction of justice.”
  The city dropped the prosecution after Elli pled not guilty, and later said it ordered police not to enforce the law. Nonetheless, Elli proceeded with a federal lawsuit. In early February, U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey issued an order to make certain he stopped the “chilling effect” on citizens exercising their First Amendment right of free speech.
  Judge Henry’s ruling makes the important point that Missouri law forbids someone from warning of “impending discovery or apprehension,” but specifically excludes telling someone to comply with the law. In other words, communicating “slow down” is protected speech because it encourages safer driving.
  An attorney for Elli from the American Civil Liberties Union, Tony Rothert, told The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog that there was a higher principle involved, too: With rare exception, the police shouldn’t be stopping or prosecuting people because of the content of their speech.
  As it happens, along with headlight warnings, other courts have protected a range of “speech,” from the spoken word to expressive conduct, where government may not prosecute.
  While it may be rude to do so, and may well mean a risk of arrest before later exoneration, courts have said people can confront police officers using insulting words, hand and finger gestures to a degree more than they could similarly challenge other “civilians.” In City of Houston v. Hill, in 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court noted “a properly trained officer may reasonably be expected to exercise a greater degree of restraint than the average citizen” to such expressive conduct.
  The point is not that courts are encouraging us to be insulting or disrespectful to police or other authorities — rather that government, from the lowest to highest official in the land, cannot override our right to speak freely without presenting good reason rooted in law.
  In Houston, Justice William J. Brennan wrote that “the right of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state. ... The First Amendment recognizes, wisely we think, that a certain amount of expressive disorder not only is inevitable in a society committed to individual freedom, but must itself be protected if that freedom would survive.”
  We traditionally celebrate freedom with fireworks on July 4, Independence Day. Maybe an occasional flick or two of the high-beams is in order, too.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Gunplay the Charles Bronson way is not the wisest answer

Bobs Column - The B SideMy cell phone rang; I answered and heard my son say, “I think there’s someone at the back door.” He was in his bedroom, I was in mine—it was after midnight.
I hung up and immediately called the Oak Lawn police, who arrived at the house in about one minute. They walked through the backyard, checked for footprints in the snow, went into the garage but saw no signs of a burglar or intruder. As they left, they assured us they would drive through the alley and patrol adjacent streets.
Did my son truly hear someone trying to open the back door? It’s very possible. Our dog was distracted that night, which is unusual for her. And there has been a rash of burglaries and attempted burglaries in the village over the past several weeks.
It’s concerning. It’s upsetting. And it’s serves as a reminder that we all need to take every precaution possible when it comes to securing our homes. For me, however, purchasing a gun will not be one of those safeguards.
Gun proponents are quick to argue that they have a right to own firearms to protect their families and property. They’re fed up with criminals having the upper hand over law-abiding citizens.
So am I.
I see police reports from Oak Lawn and several other communities on a weekly basis, and understand why residents and business owners are alarmed. But you won’t convince me that having a weapon in your home is a wise idea. You have the right. I’m not out to change any laws or debate the Second Amendment. I just don’t think having a handgun or a shotgun in the house is a smart.
I recently saw some reader comments in another publication following a story about burglaries in the area. Many of the remarks reinforced my thinking that ordinary folks have no business with weapons in their homes or concealed on their person as the new law allows.
One poster commented that if someone breaks into his house, he’d have the opportunity “break in (his) recently purchased S&W Shield.” That’s just the kind of bravado that concerns me. “Go ahead, break into my house, I’m packing.”
The S&W Shield is a handgun sold by Smith and Wesson that is inexpensive and easy to conceal, according to gun advocates. But not all the posters believed it was the best choice for home protection. They wanted to step up their game to bigger artillery.
One recommended a particular pump action rifle used in hunting, sport shooting as well as by law enforcement and military organizations. Just the kind of thing you want in the house on the night you hear footsteps. I’m sure the gun proponents are convinced they could calmly grab their loaded rifle, walk down the stairs and point it at an intruder.
If they needed to pull the trigger, no problem.
I’m not so sure.
I know many gun owners have received some training. They know the basics about safety and security. But all the training in the world can’t prepare you for the night when you wake up and hear someone breaking into your house. There are too many variables—nerves, adrenaline, is the intruder armed or big or strong enough to overpower you and take the gun?
Additionally, gun ownership has been linked to higher risks of homicide, suicide and accidental death by gun. And far too many homes with guns also are occupied by children who might find the weapon and pull the trigger.
Indeed, there are other options to protect your home and family without introducing the risks associated with guns and rifles.
Motion-sensing lights, better locks, door reinforcement plates, a dog—even a security system if you want to shell out the extra bucks—are better alternatives to guns. As an Oak Lawn official told me recently, “most criminals are lazy.” If they encounter motion-sensor lights or other barriers designed to keep them away, they’ll likely move on.
Unfortunately, there’s an element of society that wants to flex its muscle and act like Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.”
They want to take the law into their own hands, defend what’s theirs at all costs, including arming themselves with weapons that are more danger than deterrent.

Inside the First Amendment - Vladimir Putin’s Potemkin village

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes

     Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent more than $50 billion — more than all previous Winter Games combined — to unveil a “new Russia” at the Sochi Olympics.
   But Sochi’s shiny new infrastructure is little more than a Potemkin village, an extravagant ruse designed to deceive the world about the true nature of Putin’s police state.
  Much to Putin’s dismay, media coverage leading up to the Games has focused on the corruption, repression and security concerns that threaten to make the most costly Games the most unsavory since the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
  Putin’s “new Russia,” it turns out, looks very much like the old Russia that denied freedom of expression, religious liberty and other human rights under both the Tsars and Soviets.
   Consider, for example, two repressive measures Putin signed into law on the same day last June.
  The better known of the two is the so-called “gay propaganda” law that has been widely condemned as a violation of free speech and freedom of assembly. Under the guise of protecting children from information about homosexuality, the law stigmatizes and silences LGBT Russians by preventing free speech, public gatherings and distribution of literature.
  Since the bill’s enactment, harassment and violence directed at LGBT people has escalated in cities across Russia.
  The second bill got fewer headlines, but it also raises alarms about the deterioration of freedom in Putin’s Russia.
  Prompted by the punk band Pussy Riot’s protest in Moscow’s main cathedral in 2012, the Duma passed a law criminalizing insulting people’s “religious feelings” in public. As a result, anyone who dares offend the sensibilities of the faithful (and this usually means Russian Orthodox believers) could face 3 years imprisonment and a stiff fine.
   The “gay propaganda” and “blasphemy” bills are the latest in a series of Russian laws passed in recent years limiting freedom of expression and belief while protecting the power and privilege of the Russian Orthodox Church.
  According to a 2012 report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a law banning unauthorized public gatherings has been used against minority religious communities, including a Protestant pastor fined for holding a religious service. Another law intended to counter “extremism” has been used to ban religious texts and treat as criminals people who prepare, store or distribute banned texts.
  Evangelicals, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims and other groups in Russia have suffered discrimination and harassment under these and similar laws.
  On paper, the 1993 Russian Constitution bars establishment of religion, recognizes all religions as equal before the law, and guarantees freedom of speech and religion. In practice, however, Putin’s government has an unholy alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, an entanglement of church and state that contributes to repression of LGBT people and minority faiths.
   Over the next few weeks, Putin will get his $50-billion moment in the sun. But we shouldn’t let the Olympic hype obscure the ugly truth about Putin’s rule.
  At the Sochi Games, all that glitters is not gold.
  Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .