The Corrupt Price of “Free” Speech in America

The leadership of the Federal Communications Commission: Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O'Reilly.
The leadership of the Federal Communications Commission:  Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O'Reilly.
The current Federal Communications Commission: Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O’Reilly.

On Oct. 16, 1995, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to strip Advanced Communications Corporation (ACC) of its direct broadcast satellite (DBS) license. The license would have allowed ACC to air 500 channels of programming, including vast in-class educational programs, to the entire U.S. That 3-2 vote took away the most comprehensive educational reform initiative in our history from every child in America.

When I reread that lede paragraph aloud, it sounds like the beginning of a grim fairytale, minus “Once Upon a Time.” But it wasn’t a fairytale. It was reality: a dreadful nightmare for me as well as for those I worked with at the time. And worse than what it meant to me, it hurt the American people socially and financially, and it made us less secure as a nation. That’s our government at work.

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ACC had contracted nearly 19 percent of its nationwide transponder capacity — now owned by the Dish Network — to an educational trust that was prepared to deliver educational programming free of charge to kids and parents all over America. ACC’s voluntary obligation, dedicated to educating our children, was estimated to have delivered upwards of 200 channels of free programmed curricula — an estimate by one of the engineers who developed the DBS technology. Such an initiative would have saved our local schools hundreds of billions of dollars over the years. It was an educational initiative fostered by former Congressman Wilbur Mills, the longest-serving chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means. Mills had led design of major federal programs including Medicare, Social Security, interstate highways and tax reform.

Mills led ACC’s education effort.

The FCC’s actions were so outrageous that both President Bill Clinton’s home state of Arkansas and his local city government in Little Rock participated a lawsuit against his administration. The suit made it to the U.S. Supreme Court yet was not reported in the press. The resulting outrage caused an Arkansas Congressman’s chief of staff to say that it was the biggest scandal since Watergate.

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Why did the FCC make such a decision? Was it about our children’s future ability to compete in global markets or our economy’s security and thus our national security? No, it was all about money. It was about greed on the part of our government and big business, and about irresponsible people in Washington being in charge: people who don’t care that the functioning of our democracy can make a difference in the world and in the lives of individuals. It was about thoughtless people entrusted with powerful positions; people who were less concerned about the public good and more concerned about their pocketbooks.

The FCC and Definition of Free Speech
The FCC is a bureaucracy that oversees part of a media industry (radio and television) whose constitutionally protected purpose is to oversee the government, including the very bureaucracy allowing them to do business. Do you see the beginnings of a problem? A problem exacerbated by the fact that the FCC receives revenues from the very businesses that they oversee and license.

Talk about a Catch-22: a business pays a fee to a government bureaucracy which oversees the business that pays the fee so the bureaucracy can license the business whose purpose is to oversee the public bureaucracy that oversees the fee-paying business so the first overseer can oversee the second overseer who oversees the original overseer.

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It seems that only Washington, D.C. can come up with this crap: a corrupt governing system so totally bastardized that the future of our democracy is in peril.

Do you think that the government collecting your telephone data endangers your being “secure in your papers,” or maybe infringes on your unalienable rights? If so, then you also might find it problematic to turn over one of the greatest bastions of freedom — licensing and controlling Internet domain names — to an international body with no history of preserving and propagating democracy. If you think that is problematic, then you might believe that a government bureaucracy not doing what it’s Congressionally mandated to do is a government run amuck.

You might be concerned about a government bureaucracy controlling one of the largest wealth-creating sectors of the economy, control that will eventually extend beyond speech on our telephones and 1’s and 0’s on the Internet. It will eventually extend to the core of our economic system: intellectual properties. That means your thoughts — thoughts that innovate, thoughts which create wealth, thoughts that are considered speech and thoughts which will eventually be taxed.

If the government can tax thoughts that create communications-age products, including speech, as well as the distribution of those creative products, can government then control them? The answer is yes.

The FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C.

If the government can tax or control thoughts — which are considered “product” — then who retains ownership of the creative thoughts and speech (the product) if there is a tax lien? These are but a few pivotal issues for the Communications Age, and critical issues for the eco-Boomers, Millennials and following generations.

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The first bullet point on the FCC’s website regarding its purpose doesn’t jibe with what they are actually doing. Based on my experience and the history of the FCC’s licensing of direct-broadcast-satellite companies, the FCC has, in fact, restricted competition and killed innovation.

Do you think that government thwarting innovation, then making decisions which prevent us from having an enlightened electorate to help secure our nation, is bad? Then you will really be pissed-off at the FCC’s recent hair-brained, Fascist idea to place “government monitors” in the “newsrooms” of media companies. Whoever thought of this should be fired and castigated by all of the media companies in all media forms for the next decade. Actually, my thoughts about punishment for those advocating such Fascist initiatives are much more severe than castigation. But I can’t express them for fear of being hounded by my government.

The Common Thread
All these disparate issues have a common thread: the government has determined that it wants to control access to all venues of free speech. It wants a “piece of the action” — meaning money — for allowing you the right to engage in speech that, to this point, has been “free.” Eventually, “free speech” will only be allowed for a price.

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I had been aware for some time of government’s ineptness, as well as the anamorphosis and evolutionary bastardization that takes place within most bureaucratically burdened institutions. I wrote about it at some length in a book. But my awareness was no match for experiencing first-hand the federal government’s gross institutional incompetence and how some of our politicians and their buddies, along with a few bureaucrats, use the government as their own personal cash cow. They shake down businesses that then turn around and use the government to protect their fiefdoms. That’s what is happening with the FCC and the big media conglomerates. I referred to this phenomenon in an earlier CFR column titled Politics – The Only Game in Town.

Free Speech / Educational Doctrine
I hope that shining light on the FCC actions, which killed the educational initiative of Wilbur Mills, demonstrates the insidious nature of some of our governing agencies; agencies which continually chip away at our aspirations and rights because of a fundamental autocratic hunger that these institutions have for power and money. I also hope that I have sufficiently demonstrated how the bureaucratic effort to restrict free speech is a stealthy trend that will leave us with diminished rights — rights for which our forefathers fought and died.

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It was our hope years ago to utilize advanced technologies to create educational reforms that would be linked to our economy’s strength and security, and therefore to our nation’s strength and security. I wrote a position paper on the subject those many years ago as a suggestion to the President for a doctrine that could attach education’s explicit importance to the world’s security.

Such a doctrine — like the Truman Doctrine and Monroe Doctrine — could equate for the first time in history our children’s education to our national security.

Such a doctrine could develop the necessary arguments for advanced telecommunications’ global emphasis, and real educational reform for all nations. Add to that the necessity for the continued democratization of all institutions. Such a doctrine would be a cornerstone to the freedoms we Americans champion for all people, and would underpin and encourage free speech. It could be a key to creating a sustainable and secure world; a position that is the underpinning of a knowledgeable, competent, trustworthy and enlightened electorate: the foundation of democracy.