Ken Ferree on the FCC’s “Future of Media” Inquiry as an Affront to Free Speech

by on February 6, 2010 · 3 comments

Ken Ferree, former chief of the FCC’s media bureau and PFF’s recently retired president (now Board member), has penned another devastatingly witty piece slamming the FCC’s recently announced inquiry into “the future of media and information needs of communities in a digital age” as something that,

should make the stomachs of civil libertarians everywhere queasy. Of course the Public Notice of the inquiry is dressed up in all of the usual public interest language. The Commission purports to be interested in protecting good journalism, promoting a diversity of information sources, and expanding the opportunities for a vibrant debate of public issues. We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of those representations, or of the FCC’s claim that it will consider First Amendment concerns first and foremost as the inquiry proceeds.

The problem is that the very act of initiating such an inquiry will chill protected speech; government inquiry into what is and is not working in the area of news, information, and media is itself an affront to the First Amendment. And it is no answer that the Commission has embarked on this journey with beneficent motives, it has no power to derogate from the protections of the First Amendment in the name of what one group of bureaucrats may think are important government interests.

Can there be any doubt but that any category of speakers that are even indirectly regulated by the FCC will be mindful of this new inquiry and will curb the nature of their conduct and communications in light of it? What great potential for mischief the FCC has spawned merely by initiating this little inquiry! Regulation by “raised eyebrow” has become a well-established tool for a number of federal agencies, including the FCC, but with this inquiry the Commission has taken the concept to a level heretofore unknown – this inquiry is regulation by penetrating leer.

The rest of the piece is well worth reading. But of course, the FCC will continue on their merry way anyway presuming neither their their complete lack of jurisdiction nor the First Amendment prevents them from “merely asking questions”—as with asked open-ended questions about things like cloud computing, online privacy (a slightly different matter) and online content controls that don’t come anywhere near the agency’s jurisdiction. Adam and I will be filing comments on the “Empowering Parents” inquiry questioning this “questioning.”

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