Mandated Broadcast Coverage of Public Affairs: A Look Back at the Fairness Doctrine in the United States
In 1949, the communication regulator in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), adopted the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine had two requirements. First, broadcasters had to “devote a reasonable percentage of their broadcasting time to the discussion of public issues of interest in the community served by their stations”, and, second, they had to ensure that their programming “be designed so that the public ha[d] a reasonable opportunity to hear different opposing positions on the public issues of interest and importance in the community”. The Fairness Doctrine was controversial. Critics claimed that the Doctrine was an unjustified imposition on free speech and press rights, particularly because, in the critics’ view, the Doctrine chilled broadcasters’ communication. Free speech and press rights are generally protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Over the course of nearly four decades during which the Fairness Doctrine was operational, discussion of the Doctrine arose in various legal and administrative proceedings, two of which are of special interest to this paper. In 1969, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Doctrine in Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC. In 1987, the FCC repealed the Doctrine in Syracuse Peace Council v. Television Station WTVH.
While the Fairness Doctrine is no longer in use, the concerns behind the doctrine remain important. Accordingly, this paper provides a retrospective on the Fairness Doctrine. To do so, the paper will offer background on the Doctrine, examine the key arguments that emerged in Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC and Syracuse Peace Council v. Television Station WTVH, address the strengths and weaknesses of the Doctrine, and finally discuss alternatives to the Doctrine.