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Scott Walker and the GOP Turning First Amendment Rights Upside Down

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And how, if Republicans have their way, it may get even worse...

originally posted at BradBlog.com

It's been an entire year since the First Amendment suffered a gigantic blow as a result of the 2012 Scott Walker recall campaign in Wisconsin, though it's one that very few Americans above and beyond astute Brad Blog readers, even know about. And now, there is another threat to free speech, stemming from that same recall of GOP presidential hopeful Walker looming at the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.


Presidential Hopeful Scott Walker
(Image by Wikimedia)
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Walker's attorneys are now arguing at the Wisconsin State Supreme Court that it is a violation of the First Amendment rights to even investigate whether the Walker campaign broke state law by the controversial candidate personally soliciting funds from non-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups so donors to his campaign could remain secret. In a separate gambit, they also tried to make that case to the United States Supreme Court, which early Monday sent the case back to Wisconsin.

And it now appears that Right Wing Radio talkers -- at the core of a very real First Amendment blow suffered one year ago --- are, once again, in the thick of all of it.

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This is all related to what Media Action Center (MAC) members discovered during the 2012 recall campaign when talk hosts on Wisconsin radio giants WTMJ and WISN gave hours of free airtime for GOP luminaries like Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus and Wisconsin GOP Vice Chair Brian Schimming in order to promote and recruit volunteers for Walker during that contentious campaign.

"Free" speech?

Supporters of Walker's opponent, Democrat Tom Barrett, contacted the two stations asking for comparable time under a long-established FCC rule called the "Zapple Doctrine," and were denied their request. It was one year ago when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)'s Media Bureau, in response to complaints filed by MAC, publicly decided that Zapple is no longer in effect, making it perfectly legal for radio stations to provide millions of dollars in free airtime over our public airwaves for political operatives to promote and even recruit volunteers for their candidates' campaigns, without allowing supporters of opposing party's candidates on the air at all.

In doing so, the FCC cited the First Amendment rights of the radio stations to promote whomever they wish (even though the opponents' supporters equally own the airwaves, but aren't allowed access to the microphones.)

MAC (of which I am the founder) could have appealed the stunning FCC decision, but with the public interest attorneys tied up with issues related to the FCC's Net Neutrality ruling, there was no one available to assist. Plus, we always knew that the original Zapple Doctrine was a hybrid of the Fairness Doctrine rule and Section 315a of the statutory Communications Act, which guarantees equal time for political candidates. We knew the FCC could go one of two ways with its decision: the agency could endorse comparable time for candidates' supporters under Section 315a of the federal law, or it could take the easy way out and say the Zapple Doctrine was thrown out along with the Fairness Doctrine -- a set of rules formerly used by the FCC to help interpret and enforce the Communications Act.

No surprise, the agency took the easy way out and declared that when the Fairness Doctrine was killed (at the request of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s), so was the Zapple Doctrine along with it.

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Still, we had to file the complaint to make the point that giving hundreds of minutes of free air time to just one political party, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions to that party's candidate -- over our publicly-owned airwaves -- is not the way it should be. Sometimes you have to firmly establish something is wrong before you can make it right.

It didn't take long for the Right Wing spin machine to turn the ruling on its head to claim a giant victory for the First Amendment. Just one week after the FCC decision, Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai (well known for his partisan political antics) wrote a piece for the Right Wing website RedState.com, entirely mischaracterizing MAC's case while waving the flag of First Amendment "free speech". His Orwellian summation:

The end of the Zapple Doctrine presents an important lesson: There will always be someone eager to manipulate the levers of government to serve a political end. It is our responsibility to stand against such efforts and the tactics of political intimidation. We must continue to reject attempts to micromanage the marketplace of ideas and limit media choices. We must continue to empower consumers to make their own decisions and give news outlets the flexibility to make their own editorial judgments. And we must always stand up for the First Amendment --- even when, especially when, it's "controversial."

Unfortunately, that sort of up is down argument has now become all-too-typical GOP rhetoric. Deny your political opponents free speech on the airwaves we ALL own, then call it a victory for the First Amendment.

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Sue Wilson tells important stories which move politicians to act. The Emmy winning director of the media reform documentary "Broadcast Blues" and editor of SueWilsonReports.com, Sue recently founded the Media Action Center. Wilson was 1987's (more...)
 

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