President Reagan, intensifying the debate over whether the nation’s broadcasters must present opposing views of controversial issues, has vetoed legislation to turn into law the 38-year-old “fairness doctrine,” the White House announced Saturday.
The doctrine, instituted by the Federal Communications Commission as public policy in 1949, requires the nation’s radio and television stations to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.”
“This type of content-based regulation by the federal government is, in my judgment, antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Reagan said in his veto message. “In any other medium besides broadcasting, such federal policing of the editorial judgment of journalists would be unthinkable.”
The legislation had been staunchly opposed not only by the Administration, but also by the nation’s broadcasters, who maintain that the FCC policy is an unconstitutional intrusion that has a chilling effect on their operations.
Opponents also contend that the explosive growth of the telecommunications industry in recent years makes the fairness doctrine obsolete. In his veto message, Reagan noted that the FCC has concluded “that the doctrine is an unnecessary and detrimental regulatory mechanism.”
The legislation containing the doctrine passed the House on a 302-102 vote on June 3 and had been approved by the Senate in April on a 59-31 vote.
If the measure does not become law, the fairness doctrine and its obligations still will remain in effect as FCC policy. However, supporters have been seeking to codify the regulation for fear that the FCC could act to repeal it--particularly in light of a federal appeals court ruling last year that concluded that the doctrine was not a law, leaving its enforcement up to the FCC.
Former FCC Chairman Mark S. Fowler had pressed for repeal of the fairness doctrine and, the June 22 issue of Broadcasting magazine said, helped to write Reagan’s veto message.
In 1985 the FCC, under Fowler’s leadership, issued a report on the doctrine calling it constitutionally “suspect” and said that “if it were up to the commission, it would hold the doctrine unconstitutional.”
Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, applauded Reagan’s action Saturday, declaring that “broadcasters believe in fairness” but that the doctrine is “unconstitutional and an infringement on free speech. It is an intrusion into broadcasters’ journalistic judgment.”
Override Fight Vowed
But supporters of the measure--a diverse coalition of public interest and religious groups and conservative and liberal political organizations--vowed to fight for a congressional override.
“The fairness doctrine is a limited requirement imposed on broadcasters in exchange for the highly lucrative privilege they obtain with their licenses for exclusive use of a scarce national resource,” Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a written statement.
He said: “We will move forward and give the President many opportunities to reconsider the misguided judgment shown by this veto.” Dingell has previously vowed to “tack it onto everything” coming out of his committee until Reagan signs the measure.
In his veto message, Reagan said that, although the legislation may be well-intentioned, he considers it unconstitutional. He said the bill “simply cannot be reconciled with the freedom of speech and the press secured by the Constitution.”
“The framers of the First Amendment, confident that public debate would be freer and healthier without the kind of interference represented by the fairness doctrine, chose to forbid such regulations in the clearest terms,” he said.
Moreover, he said: “History has shown that the dangers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and competition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee.”
In arguing against the legislation, the nation’s broadcasters maintained that the scarcity of broadcast outlets, which initially prompted creation of the fairness doctrine, no longer exists. The broadcasters contend that advances in technology and the expanding number of broadcast stations provide many more opportunities for the presentation of diverse viewpoints.
Growth of Outlets
Reagan agreed in his veto message, saying it was fair to conclude that “the growth in the number of available media outlets does indeed outweigh whatever justifications may have seemed to exist at the period during which the doctrine was developed.”
“We will work hard to help the President to sustain his veto,” Fritts said. “We think there is a good opportunity to prevail.”
But Andrew J. Schwartzman, head of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm, said he thought that there was a “good chance” that the veto would be overridden.
“I’m confident the bill will be enacted ultimately, but it will take longer and mean more work,” he said.