Back in March, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging the FCC’s policy of punishing television broadcasters for fleeting expletives. Reason offers an excellent history of the case and the policy. Now, interest groups are pushing to maintain the Court’s earlier Red Lion decision, which held that some FCC censorship of television and radio is legitimate because the spectrum over which TV and radio are broadcast is a scarce good.
But innovations such as cable and the internet are reducing that scarcity. Fewer and fewer people are receiving television – and even radio – through traditional broadcast channels, yet if NBC is censored in its airwave broadcasts, it’s also censored in its cable broadcasts.
Moreover, there are alternate – and less constitutionally-questionable – ways to solve the problem of spectrum scarcity. Why not just auction off the spectrum to the highest bidders, leaving the winners free to do with it what they want? No one has to tune in to whatever is broadcast over the airwaves and so the government has no business dictating what can and must be said in those broadcasts. Such a system of private ownership would be immensely simpler, more efficient, and freer than the present regime of quasi-government-ownership.