I just got my hands on my copy of Krattenmaker & Powe's Regulating Broadcast Programming, a very good book on the subject. A few highlights:
The Radio Act of 1927 authorized licensing decisions based on the content of the speech (despite its provision supposedly banning "censorship").
By 1930, the Federal Radio Commission was restricting what it saw as "propaganda stations," on the theory that "there is no place for a station catering to any group" (said in an opinion about a Chicago Federation of Labor station).
By the early 1930s, the FRC was also restricting "bitter and personal" and "ignoran[t]" "attack[s]" on "public officials."
This pattern of restriction continued for the following decades. In the 1960s WLBT, for instance, the FCC took steps (though not very strong steps) to restrict white racist television programming, on the theory that such programming didn't adequately serve black viewers. The D.C. Circuit eventually ordered the FCC to strip the station of its license.
Likewise, in the early 1970s, the FCC expressly warned broadcasters that it was against their public service duties to play songs "tending to promote or glorify the use of illegal drugs," and issued a 22-song "do not play" list, including "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Truckin," and others. Radio stations generally complied (at least for a time).
The equal opportunities rules that had required broadcasters who chose to carry certain materials involving candidates to provide equal access to other candidates had been around since 1927. Their high water mark came in 1959, when a news reporting showing "Mayor Richard Daley greeting the president of Argentina at Midway Airport during a snowstorm" was found to trigger a duty to provide equal time to Daley's challenger (apparently something of a joke challenger) Lar Daly; this prompted Congress to provide some exceptions for news reports.
The Fairness Doctrine's "roots go back to the FRC's hostility to 'propaganda stations'"; this turned in 1940 into the decision that broadcasters "could never editorialize," and then was revised in 1949 into the doctrine that broadcasters could editorialize but had to provide access to rival views.
There's more, but this should give people a sense of how restricted broadcast programming has been for nearly all of its existence. I say this not to praise the restrictions; far from it. I'm glad that the Court has cut back on the restrictions, at least apparently imposing a viewpoint-neutrality requirement, and I hope the Court cuts back on them still more. I'm glad that the FCC has repealed the Fairness Doctrine.
But I hope this warns people not to complain that somehow some broadcasting restrictions show that "we don't have freedom of speech in America any more." Whether we're talking about political speech or speech more broadly, broadcast speech is at least as free today from government restriction as it almost ever has been, and considerably freer than it has been at many times in the past.
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