A coalition of progressive media groups (including Free Press, Media Access Project, and Common Cause) have sent the FCC a letter demanding that it monitor “hate speech” as “extremism and misinformation have been on the rise” on TV, radio, and the Internet, and that the agency should propose non-regulatory ways to counter it. While combating hate speech is certainly a noble goal, this Orwellian recommendation would have a federal agency acting as our very own “Ministry of Truth” – raising a whole host of free speech concerns.
First, there is absolutely no reason to suspect such a proposal will not lead to media and Internet content regulation. Many of these groups are Net Neutrality proponents, who claim a desire to regulate Internet networks, but not content. Yet, now they are pushing for inquiries on what sorts of content should be rooted out. Many have also long pushed for the Fairness Doctrine, which regulated political speech.
Additionally, the FCC’s definitions of “hate speech,” “extremism,” or “misinformation” will be nearly impossible to define. They could also be subject to the whims of political tides, with the party in power using the agency to try to censor or publicly discredit dissenting opinions. They could be expanded to track other sorts of politically-charged speech. Indeed, the letter is wrapped in politically controversial issues, referencing a ridiculous report from the Department of Homeland Security last year, which called limited government advocates “rightwing extremists,” and the immigration law recently passed in Arizona, amongst other things. Love or loathe the DHS report or the Arizona immigration law (ATR does not take a position), but the broader questions raised by this letter have nothing to do with it.
The measure could easily lead to First Amendment violations or the Fairness Doctrine. No one should condone hate speech, but the First Amendment guards your right to say even incredibly false things, regardless of whether society overwhelming agrees or disagrees. Just as consumers in a free market are the best regulators of business, individuals in a free society are the best regulators of others’ words – and inflammatory rhetoric is met with backlash and harsh criticism (like the progressives’ very letter).
Further, while the Fairness Doctrine (abandoned over 20 years ago) mandated equal time for opposing viewpoints, this would instead have a politically-appointed government agency providing that opposing viewpoint, or at least declaring that one viewpoint is wrong – something significantly more disconcerting. The coalition labels this criticism as a “red herring,” but using a politically-correct vessel about “hate speech” to push for government monitoring of media and the Internet is itself a “red herring.”
Finally, the idea that false rhetoric should not be tolerated is odd coming from organizations like Free Press. These are the very people who falsely claimed that Congress supported Net Neutrality (when they broadly oppose it); the very people who lie about the number of supporters they have and attack others of "astroturfing" when they do it themselves; the very people who can't name but one instance of "bad behavior" to support their ruthless campaign for Internet regulation. Yet, they now declare that the government should publicly call others out for spreading “misinformation?” When the political tide inevitably turns and another party controls the FCC with authority to monitor and regulate media content, maybe then they’ll learn why permitting the government to meddle with free speech isn’t good for anyone.