Supreme Court Decision in FCC v. Fox (Part 4: The Thomas Concurrence)

by on April 28, 2009 · 23 comments

With today’s historic Supreme Court decision in FCC v. Fox, I have been commenting on the logic and implications of the decision. Part 3 dealt with the majority’s decision in the case, which was driven solely by procedural / admin law considerations.  This installment will discuss the very interesting concurring opinion penned by Justice Thomas, which is the only one that takes a serious look at the constitutional foundations of the FCC’s current regulatory regime.  While I was sad to see Justice Thomas join the majority’s decision upholding the FCC’s radical expansion of speech regulation in recent years, he joined that majority only on straightforward procedural grounds.   On the underlying constitutional issues at stake here, it is clear from his concurring statement that he is ready for the Court to hear a challenge to the previous court precedents and traditional regulatory doctrines that have long supported FCC speech and media controls.

“I write separately,” Justice Thomas says “to note the questionable viability of the two precedents that support the FCC’s assertion of constitutional authority to regulate the programming at issue in this case.”  Specifically, he addresses the two key cases upon which almost all FCC speech regulation rests: Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U. S. 367 (1969) and FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U. S. 726 (1978). Thomas continues: “Red Lion and Pacifica were unconvincing when they were issued, and the passage of time has only increased doubt regarding their continued validity.”

BOOM!  With those words, Justice Thomas has dropped the hammer and taken what will hopefully be the first swing at toppling the house of cards that is modern FCC speech regulation.  Justice Thomas goes on to itemize the many problems with what I have referred to as “America’s Jurisprudential Twilight Zone” when it comes to how we apply the First Amendment to media platforms in this country.  He states:

This deep intrusion into the First Amendment rights of broadcasters, which the Court has justified based only on the nature of the medium, is problematic on two levels. [...]  First, instead of looking to first principles to evaluate the constitutional question, the Court relied on a set of transitory facts, e.g., the ‘scarcity of radio frequencies’… to determine the applicable First Amendment standard. But the original meaning of the Constitution cannot turn on modern necessity…  Second, even if this Court’s disfavored treatment of broadcasters under the First Amendment could have been justified at the time of Red Lion and Pacifica, dramatic technological advances have eviscerated the factual assumptions underlying those decisions. [...]

Moreover, traditional broadcast television and radio are no longer the ‘uniquely pervasive’ media forms they once were. For most consumers, traditional broadcast media programming is now bundled with cable or satellite services. Broadcast and other video programming is also widely available over the Internet. And like radio and television broadcasts, Internet access is now often freely available over the airwaves and can be accessed by portable computer, cell phones, and other wireless devices.

Indeed, along with my friends as the Center for Democracy & Technology, I documented these trends in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in this case and pointed out that, at some point, these facts must impact the constitutional equation when it comes to the way the FCC continues to regulate broadcast programming uniquely.  Justice Thomas appears to agree:

The extant facts that drove this Court to subject broadcasters to unique disfavor under the First Amendment simply do not exist today. [...] These dramatic changes in factual circumstances might well support a departure from precedent under the prevailing approach to stare decisis. [...] For all these reasons, I am open to reconsideration of Red Lion and Pacifica in the proper case.

Unfortunately, this case apparently was not “the proper case” for Justice Thomas and so he joined the majority’s APA-driven decision and left the thorny constitutional issues for another day.  Eventually, however, the Court is going to have to come to grips with the issues that Justice Thomas has put front and center in his concurring opinion today.

Finally, in his otherwise outstanding statement, I was disappointed that Justice Thomas made no mention of the Court’s recent Internet jurisprudence, which has all gone squarely in favor of robust First Amendment protection for the Net and online speakers.  In particular, the “least restrictive means” test that has developed in those cases (i.e., deferring to user self-help tools before allowing state regulation) is equally applicable to programming television programming.  Just as parents have been empowered to take control of the online content that comes into their homes using filters and other tools, so too have parents been empowered to restrict or tailor television program to their tastes and values. How, then, is it the case that the Court upholds this logic in cases like Reno (the CDA case), Ashcroft (the COPA case), & Playboy (the cable TV signal scrambling case), but not in the case of broadcast TV programming, which is easier to control than ever before?  It makes zero sense.

Regardless, I hope other judges are listening to what Justice Thomas had to say today and taking these arguments seriously.

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