First Amendment & Free Speech

For decades, cities, the FCC, and Congress have mandated that cable TV operators carry certain types of TV programming, including public access channels, local broadcast channels, local public television, and children’s programming. These carriage mandates have generated several First Amendment lawsuits but cable operators have generally lost. Cable operators have junior varsity First Amendment rights and the content they distribute is more regulated than, say, newspapers, Internet service providers, search engines, and Netflix. I submitted public interest comments (with JP Mohler) to the FCC this week explaining why cable operators would likely win today if they litigated these cable carriage regulations.

Regulations requiring newspapers, book publishers, or Internet service providers to carry the government’s preferred types of content are subject to strict scrutiny, which means such regulations typically don’t survive. However, cable is different, the Supreme Court held in the 1994 Turner case. The Supreme Court said regulations about what cable operators must carry are subject to intermediate–not strict–scrutiny because cable operators (in 1994) possessed about 95% of the subscription TV market and nearly every household had a single choice for subscription TV–their local cable monopoly. In the words of the Supreme Court, cable’s content regulations “are justified by the special characteristics of the cable medium: the bottleneck monopoly power exercised by cable operators.”

As a result, the FCC enforces “leased access” regulations that require cable operators to leave blank certain TV channels and give non-affiliated programmers a chance to use that channel capacity and gain viewership. Cable operators in the 1990s sued the FCC for enforcing these regulations in a 1996 case called Time Warner v. FCC. The DC Circuit relied on the 1994 Turner case and upheld the leased access rules.

Recently, however, the FCC asked whether First Amendment interests or TV competition requires giving these regulations another look. In our public interest comment, JP and I say that these rules have outlived their usefulness and cable operators would likely win a First Amendment lawsuit against the FCC today.

Two things have changed. First, cable operators have lost their “bottleneck monopoly power” that justified, in the eyes of the Supreme Court in 1994, giving cable operators weakened First Amendment protection.

Unlike in the 1990s, cable operators face significant competition in most local markets from satellite and telco TV providers. Over 99 percent of US households have at least three pay-TV options, and cable has lost over 15 million subscriber households since 2002. In 1997, when Turner II was decided, cable had over 90 percent of the pay-TV market. Cable operators’ market share has shrunk nearly every year since, and in 2015 cable had around 54 percent market share.

This competitive marketplace has stimulated massive investment and choice in TV programming. The typical household has access to far more channels than in the past. Independent researchers found that a typical US household in 1999 received about 50 TV channels. By 2014, the typical household received over 200 TV channels. In 2018, there will be an estimated 520 scripted TV series available, which is up nearly 50 percent from just five years ago.

This emergence of TV competition and its beneficial effects in programming and consumer choice undermines the justification for upholding cable content regulations like leased access.

Second, courts are more likely to view the Supreme Court’s Denver decision about leased access regulations in a new light.  In Denver, the Supreme Court divided into concurrences as to the proper First Amendment category of cable operators, and whether intermediate or strict scrutiny should apply to the leased access laws at issue. The “Marks test” is the test lower courts use for determining the holding of a Supreme Court decision where there is no majority supporting the rationale of any opinion. Viewed through the lens of the prevailing Marks test, cable operators are entitled to “bookstore owner” status for First Amendment purposes:

Given that four justices in Denver concur that one of the potential bases for deciding cable’s First Amendment status is the classification of cable operators as bookstores and three justices concur that this classification is the definitive justification for the judgment, the narrowest grounds for resolving the issue is simply this latter justification. Under the prevailing Marks test, then, lower courts will apply strict scrutiny to the leased access rules in light of the Denver decision.

For these reasons, and the need to conserve agency resources for more pressing matters, like rural broadband deployment and spectrum auctions, we encourage the FCC to discontinue these regulations.

You can read our public interest comment about the leased access regulations at the Mercatus Center website.

Leased Access Mandates Infringe on the First Amendment Rights of Cable Operators, and the FCC Should Decline to Enforce the Regulations

There are a growing number of voices raising concerns about privacy rights and data security in the wake of news of data breaches and potential influence. The European Union (EU) recently adopted the heavily restrictive General Data Privacy Rule (GDPR) that favors individual privacy over innovation or the right to speak. While there has been some discussion of potential federal legislation related to data privacy, none of these attempts has truly gained traction beyond existing special protections for vulnerable users (like children) or specific information (like that of healthcare and finances). Some states, notably including California, are attempting to solve this perceived problem of data privacy on their own, but often are creating bigger problems and passing potentially unconstitutional and often poorly drafted solutions.

Continue reading →

On March 19th, I had the chance to debate Franklin Foer at a Patrick Henry College event focused on the question, “Is Big Tech Big Brother?” It was billed as a debate over the role of technology in American society and whether government should be regulating media and technology platforms more generally.  [The full event video is here.] Foer is the author of the new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, in which he advocates a fairly expansive regulatory regime for modern information technology platforms. He is open to building on regulatory ideas from the past, including broadcast-esque licensing regimes, “Fairness Doctrine”-like mandates for digital intermediaries, “fiduciary” responsibilities, beefed-up antitrust intervention, and other types of controls. In a review of the book for Reason, and then again during the debate at Patrick Henry University, I offered some reflections on what we can learn from history about how well ideas like those worked out in practice.

My closing statement of the debate, which lasted just a little over three minutes, offers a concise summation of what that history teaches us and why it would be so dangerous to repeat the mistakes of the past by wandering down that disastrous path again. That 3-minute clip is posted below. (The audience was polled before and after the event and asked the same question each time: “Do large tech companies wield too much power in our economy, media and personal lives and if so, should government(s) intervene?” Apparently at the beginning, the poll was roughly Yes – 70% and No – 30%, but after the debated ended it has reversed, with only 30% in favor of intervention and 70% against. Glad to turn around some minds on this one!)

via ytCropper

Internet regulation advocates lost their fight at the FCC, which voted in December 2017 to rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order. Regulation advocates have now taken their “net neutrality” regulations to the states.

Some state officials–via procurement contracts, executive order, or legislation–are attempting to monitor and regulate traffic management techniques and Internet service provider business models in the name of net neutrality. No one, apparently, told these officials that government-mandated net neutrality principles are dead in the US.

As the litigation over the 2015 rules showed, our national laissez faire policy towards the Internet and our First Amendment guts any attempt to enforce net neutrality. Recall that the 1996 amendments to the Communications Act announce a clear national policy about the Internet: Continue reading →

Broadcast license renewal challenges have troubled libertarians and free speech advocates for decades. Despite our efforts (and our law journal articles on the abuse of the licensing process), license challenges are legal. In fact, political parties, prior FCCs, and activist groups have encouraged license challenges based on TV content to ensure broadcasters are operating in “the public interest.” Further, courts have compelled and will compel a reluctant FCC to investigate “news distortion” and other violations of FCC broadcast rules. It’s a troubling state of affairs that has been pushed back into relevancy because FCC license challenges are in the news.

In recent years the FCC, whether led by Democrats or Republicans, has preferred to avoid tricky questions surrounding license renewals. Chairman Pai, like most recent FCC chairs, has been an outspoken defender of First Amendment protections and norms. He opposed, for instance, the Obama FCC’s attempt to survey broadcast newsrooms about their coverage. He also penned an op-ed bringing attention to the fact that federal NSF funding was being used by left-leaning researchers to monitor and combat “misinformation and propaganda” on social media.

The silence of the Republican commissioners today about license renewals is likely primarily because they have higher priorities (like broadband deployment and freeing up spectrum) than intervening in the competitive media marketplace. But second, and less understood, is because whether to investigate a news station isn’t really up to them. Courts can overrule them and compel an investigation.

Political actors have used FCC licensing procedures for decades to silence political opponents and unfavorable media. For reasons I won’t explore here, TV and radio broadcasters have diminished First Amendment rights and the public is permitted to challenge their licenses at renewal time.

So, progressive “citizens groups” even in recent years have challenged license renewals for broadcasters for “one-sided programming.” Unfortunately, it works. For instance, in 2004 the promises of multi-year renewal challenges from outside groups and the risk of payback from a Democrat FCC forced broadcast stations to trim a documentary critical of John Kerry from 40 minutes to 4 minutes. And, unlike their cable counterparts, broadcasters censor nude scenes in TV and movies because even a Janet Jackson Superbowl scenario can lead to expensive license challenges.

These troubling licensing procedures and pressure points were largely unknown to most people, but, on October 11, President Trump tweeted:

“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”

So why hasn’t the FCC said they won’t investigate NBC and other broadcast station owners? It may be because courts can compel the FCC to investigate “news distortion.”

This is exactly what happened to the Clinton FCC. As Melody Calkins and I wrote in August about the FCC’s news distortion rule:

Though uncodified and not strictly enforced, the rule was reiterated in the FCC’s 2008 broadcast guidelines. The outline of the rule was laid out in the 1998 case Serafyn v. CBS, involving a complaint by a Ukrainian-American who alleged that the “60 Minutes” news program had unfairly edited interviews to portray Ukrainians as backwards and anti-Semitic. The FCC dismissed the complaint but DC Circuit Court reversed that dismissal and required FCC intervention. (CBS settled and the complaint was dropped before the FCC could intervene.)

The commissioners might personally wish broadcasters had full First Amendment protections and want to dismiss all challenges but current law permits and encourages license challenges. The commission can be compelled to act because of the sins of omission of prior FCCs: deciding to retain the news distortion rule and other antiquated “public interest” regulations for broadcasters. The existence of these old media rules mean the FCC’s hands are tied.

By Brent Skorup and Melody Calkins

Recently, the FCC sought comments for its Media Modernization Initiative in its effort to “eliminate or modify [media] regulations that are outdated, unnecessary, or unduly burdensome.” The regulatory thicket for TV distribution has long encumbered broadcast and cable providers. These rules encourage large, homogeneous cable TV bundles and burden cable and satellite operators with high compliance costs. (See the complex web of TV regulations at the Media Metrics website.)

One reason “skinny bundles” from online video providers and cable operators are attracting consumers is that online video circumvents the FCC’s Rube Goldberg-like system altogether. The FCC should end its 50-year experiment with TV regulation, which, among other things, has raised the cost of TV and degraded the First Amendment rights of media outlets.

The proposal to eliminate legacy media rules garnered a considerable amount of support from a wide range of commenters. In our filed reply comments, we identify four regulatory rules ripe for removal:

  • News distortion. This uncodified, under-the-radar rule allows the commission to revoke a broadcasters’ license if the FCC finds that a broadcaster deliberately engages in “news distortion, staging, or slanting.” The rule traces back to the FCC’s longstanding position that it can revoke licenses from broadcast stations if programming is not “in the public interest.”

    Though uncodified and not strictly enforced, the rule was reiterated in the FCC’s 2008 broadcast guidelines. The outline of the rule was laid out in the 1998 case Serafyn v. CBS, involving a complaint by a Ukrainian-American who alleged that the “60 Minutes” news program had unfairly edited interviews to portray Ukrainians as backwards and anti-Semitic. The FCC dismissed the complaint but DC Circuit Court reversed that dismissal and required FCC intervention. (CBS settled and the complaint was dropped before the FCC could intervene.)

    “Slanted” and distorted news can be found in (unregulated) cable news, newspapers, Twitter, and YouTube. The news distortion rule should be repealed and broadcasters should have regulatory parity (and their full First Amendment rights) restored.
  • Must-carry. The rule requires cable operators to distribute the programming of local broadcast stations at broadcasters’ request. (Stations carrying relatively low-value broadcast networks seek carriage via must-carry. Stations carrying popular networks like CBS and NBC can negotiate payment from cable operators via “retransmission consent” agreements.) Must-carry was narrowly sustained by the Supreme Court in 1994 against a First Amendment challenge, on the grounds that cable operators had monopoly power in the pay-TV market. Since then, however, cable’s market share shrank from 95% to 53%. Broadcast stations have far more options for distribution, including satellite TV, telco TV, and online distribution and it’s unlikely the rules would survive a First Amendment challenge today.
  • Network nonduplication and syndicated exclusivity. These rules limit how and when broadcast programming can be distributed and allow the FCC to intervene if a cable operator breaches a contract with a broadcast station. But the (exempted) distribution of hundreds of non-broadcast channels (e.g., CNN, MTV, ESPN) show that programmers and distributors are fully capable of forming private negotiations without FCC oversight. These rules simply make licensing negotiations more difficult and invite FCC intervention.

Finally, we identify retransmission consent regulations and compulsory licenses for repeal. Because “retrans” interacts with copyright matters outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction, we encourage the FCC work with the Copyright Office in advising Congress to repeal these statutes. Cable operators dislike the retrans framework and broadcasters dislike being compelled to license programming at regulated rates. These interventions simply aren’t needed (hundreds of cable and online-only TV channels operate outside of this framework) and neither the FCC nor the Copyright Office particularly likes being the referees in these fights. The FCC should break the stalemate and approach the Copyright Office about advocating for direct licensing of broadcast TV content.

[originally published on Plaintext on June 21, 2017.]

This summer, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of two developments that gave us the modern Internet as we know it. One was a court case that guaranteed online speech would flow freely, without government prior restraints or censorship threats. The other was an official White House framework for digital markets that ensured the free movement of goods and services online.

The result of these two vital policy decisions was an unprecedented explosion of speech freedoms and commercial opportunities that we continue to enjoy the benefits of twenty years later.

While it is easy to take all this for granted today, it is worth remembering that, in the long arc of human history, no technology or medium has more rapidly expanded the range of human liberties — both speech and commercial liberties — than the Internet and digital technologies. But things could have turned out much differently if not for the crucially important policy choices the United States made for the Internet two decades ago. Continue reading →

Title II allows the FCC to determine what content and media Internet access providers must transmit on their own private networks, so the First Amendment has constantly dogged the FCC’s “net neutrality” proceedings. If the Supreme Court agrees to take up an appeal from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected a First Amendment challenge this summer, it will likely be because of Title II’s First Amendment deficiencies.

Title II has always been about handicapping ISPs qua speakers and preventing ISPs from offering curated Internet content. As former FCC commissioner Copps said, absent the Title II rules, “a big cable company could block access to an investigative report about its less-than-stellar customer service.” Tim Wu told members of Congress that net neutrality was intended to prevent ISPs from favoring, say, particular news sources or sports teams.

But just as a cable company chooses to offer some channels and not others, and a search engine chooses to promote some pages and not others, choosing to offer a curated Internet to, say, children, religious families, or sports fans involves editorial decisions. As communications scholar Stuart Benjamin said about Title II’s problem, under current precedent, ISPs “can say they want to engage in substantive editing, and that’s enough for First Amendment purposes.”

Title II – Bringing Broadcast Regulation to the Internet

Title II regulation of the Internet is frequently compared to the Fairness Doctrine, which activists used for decades to drive conservatives out of broadcast radio and TV. As a pro-net neutrality media professor explained in The Atlantic last year, the motivation for the Fairness Doctrine and Title II Internet regulation is the same: to “rescue a potentially democratic medium from commercial capture.” This is why there is almost perfect overlap between the organizations and advocates who support the Fairness Doctrine and those who lobbied for Title II regulation of the Internet. Continue reading →

The FCC’s transaction reviews have received substantial scholarly criticism lately. The FCC has increasingly used its license transaction reviews as an opportunity to engage in ad hoc merger reviews that substitute for formal rulemaking. FCC transaction conditions since 2000 have ranged from requiring AOL-Time Warner to make future instant messaging services interoperable, to price controls for broadband for low-income families, to mandating merging parties to donate $1 million to public safety initiatives.

In the last few months alone,

  • Randy May and Seth Cooper of the Free State Foundation wrote a piece that the transaction reviews contravene rule of law norms.
  • T. Randolph Beard et al. at the Phoenix Center published a research paper about how the FCC’s informal bargaining during mergers has become much more active and politically motivated in recent years.
  • Derek Bambauer, law professor at the University of Arizona, published a law review article that criticized the use of informal agency actions to pressure companies to act in certain ways. These secretive pressures “cloak what is in reality state action in the guise of private choice.”

This week, in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, my colleague Christopher Koopman and I added to this recent scholarship on the FCC’s controversial transaction reviews. Continue reading →

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, TechFreedom and a coalition of free-market groups urged Congress to protect Americans against malicious or frivolous litigation that threatens to stifle free speech and undermine the digital economy. In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the coalition called for passage of H.R. 2304, the SPEAK FREE Act, which would give defendants across the nation access to a special motion to dismiss SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). The bill would also empower courts to shift fees, so that defendants who prevail on an anti­-SLAPP motion would not have to face legal costs.

The coalition letter reads:

Each year, a multitude of Americans fall victim to lawsuits called SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) that are aimed at unfairly intimidating and silencing them. These kinds of lawsuits are highly effective, despite being without merit, since the legal costs, invasion of privacy, and hassle associated with fighting them is rarely considered a worthwhile use of individuals’ time.

SLAPPs threaten online free speech and the business models that thrive on consumer reviews,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “Without an easy judicial mechanism to dismiss groundless lawsuits and shift fees, consumers and small businesses often have no choice but to relent to the demands of companies with deeper pockets. 28 states have already adopted anti-SLAPP standards — it’s time for Congress to do the same.”

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We can be reached for comment at media@techfreedom.org.