FCC chair: No, we don't pull licenses over content complaints

Better late than never. Almost a week after Donald Trump suggested that the FCC take action against NBC for broadcasting “fake news,” FCC chair Ajit Pai told an AT&T forum that fake news falls outside its mandate. Besides, Pai said, current law doesn’t grant the FCC authority to revoke licenses over political content … and he’s not in favor of it anyway:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) doesn’t have the authority to revoke a broadcast network’s license based on content, Chairman Ajit Pai said Tuesday in response to President Trump’s call on it to challenge NBC’s FCC licenses.

“I believe in the first amendment. The FCC, under my leadership, will stand for the first amendment,” Pai said in response to a question about calls from Trump to revoke the licenses of broadcasters who, according to the president, broadcast “fake news.”

“Under the law, the FCC does not have the authority does not have the power to revoke license of a broadcast station based on content of a program,” Pai, who was appointed by Trump as FCC chairman, said at an AT&T policy forum event.

No kidding. As I noted last week, networks don’t have licenses for their content, and many (if not most) of their stations are owned by others. Reuters also explains that today:

The FCC, an independent federal agency, does not license broadcast networks, but issues them to individual broadcast stations that are renewed on a staggered basis for eight-year periods.

Comcast Corp, which owns NBC Universal, also owns 11 broadcast stations, including outlets in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas and Chicago.

When reviewing licenses the FCC must determine if a renewal is in the public interest. Courts have held that a station exercising its First Amendment rights is not adequate grounds to challenge a license.

Networks are essentially content providers, and the only license one needs for that can be found in the First Amendment.

The only content restrictions still extant that could land broadcasters in hot water with the FCC relate to obscenities and adult material. Those restrictions cost CBS a minor fortune after the Super Bowl in 2004, when Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson’s bustier open and exposed her left breast on national television — but even that fine was on a station-by-station basis, and on an objective violation of restrictions that have nothing to do with political points of view.

Why did it take Pai so long to address the issue? Other FCC commissioners spoke out immediately about the inappropriate demand, but Pai probably felt the need to tread carefully. He’s a Trump appointee to the chairmanship, and would not have rushed to publicly contradict his ally. Nevertheless, it’s important for the FCC to clearly state the limits of its authority, especially since Pai has been a leading voice in ensuring that the FCC sticks to those limits. Even when our allies suggest government control of speech — or perhaps especially when — we must stand up to defend the First Amendment and keep the authoritarian impulse in check.