FCC Speech Czar a Myth, FCC Threat to Speech is Real

by on September 22, 2009 · 10 comments

FCC chair Julius Genachowski has certainly been busy.  This week, of course, he’s been occupied with regulating the Internet.   But last week, he was busy fending off charges on talk radio and elsewhere that the FCC has its very own “speech” or “diversity” czar.

At issue was the appointment in August of ex-journalist and Center for American Progress fellow Mark Lloyd to be the agency’s “chief diversity officer.”  That appointment instantly caused controversy, with Lloyd has becoming a cause celebre  on conservative talk radio and in the blogoshere, where he was been portrayed as yet another in a long line of powerful and unaccountable Obama policy czars and – in light of his support of government regulation of TV and radio content – a threat to free speech.   Nationally syndicated talk show host Glenn Beck led the charge, at one point twittering his listeners: “Watch Dogs: FIND OUT EVERYTHING YOU CAN” about Lloyd and several other “czars.”

But the critics had their facts wrong.   Lloyd was never chosen to be a “czar” of anything. That regal title – and its connotations of unlimited influence — were entirely invented by overactive imaginations in the media. Lloyd’s actual position in the FCC bureaucracy is much more prosaic — “associate general counsel.” He serves in that position along with three other associate general counsel, and three deputy general counsels. Anyone who’s worked at the FCC knows that  is an unlikely locus of power.

His role as “chief diversity officer” is a little less clear. It’s a new position for the FCC, but in the private sector it is an increasingly common one, essentially coordinating internal workplace initiatives.  One might question the usefulness or value of such as position, but it hardly makes the holder a czar.

But what of his policy views?  Here, there’s more to chew on, with Lloyd writing and speaking extensively in favor of media controls.   Perhaps most notably, in 2007, he co-authored a piece on the “Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio,” arguing that talk radio is disproportionately conservative in tone, and suggesting steps government could take to “address the imbalance.” Among them: stricter requirements that radio stations address the “needs and interests” of their communities,” and show they are operating in the “public interest.” And if they don’t? They would pay fines, which would be used to fund public broadcasting.  In practice, this would likely amount to a tax on politically disfavored speech.

The paper stopped short of endorsing a return to the FCC’s old Fairness Doctrine, but not because Fairness Doctrine violated the principles of free speech, but because it was not “effective.” But the steps recommended in the study are explicitly intended to reach the same end by other means. And that end – changing the content of  media through government action – is offensive to First Amendment values.

Lloyd’s critics argue that these views are extraordinary, putting him hopelessly out of the mainstream of debate.  But again they are wrong.  But the real problem is not that Lloyd’s views are extraordinary. It is that they are far too ordinary in some political circles. The 2007 talk radio report, for instance, was not a random screed – in fact it had seven authors and was jointly published by the Center for American Progress and the advocacy group Free Press. The fact is that there is significant political support to control the content of speech, especially conservative speech.

Chairman Genachowski, asked about Lloyd’s appointment, asserted that Lloyd would have no role in broadcast licensing issues.   He also maintained that he did not support speech controls, stating his opposition to the Fairness Doctrine by the front door or the back. “I believe deeply in the First Amendment, he added, “and oppose any effort to censor or impose speech on the basis of political viewpoint or opinion.”

That’s good news. But it would be more reassuring if he specifically rejected the ideas in the Lloyd paper. And if other policymakers – some of which are on record as supporting the Fairness Doctrine itself – did so too.

No, there is no “speech czar” at the FCC. But that doesn’t mean there is no threat to speech.  There is a very real threat.  As the adage says, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

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