What is the Fairness Doctrine?

In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission established the fairness doctrine requiring broadcasters to provide fair and balanced public affairs related programming.  The doctrine required broadcasters to provide coverage of issues of public importance that is adequate and fairly reflects differing viewpoints. In fulfilling its fairness doctrine obligations, a broadcaster had to provide free time for the presentation of opposing views.

A string of court decisions beginning in 1969 culminated in the FCC’s decision to do away with the doctrine. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1969, ruled that the fairness doctrine did not violate a broadcaster’s First Amendment rights, but cautioned that if the doctrine ever began to restrain speech, then the rule’s constitutionality should be reconsidered. In 1974, the Court concluded in a case that the doctrine “inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate.” And in 1984, the Court concluded that the scarcity rationale underlying the doctrine was flawed and limited the breadth of public debate. The emergence of a “multiplicity of voices in the marketplace” by the mid-1980s had rendered the Fairness Doctrine obsolete.

In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission abolished the Fairness Doctrine because, contrary to its purpose, it failed to encourage the discussion of more controversial issues and violated the First Amendment.

Since 1987, Democrat leaders in Congress have sought on several occasions to pass legislation to re-implement the Fairness Doctrine. Today, Senators Bingaman, Durbin and Kerry and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are among several Democrat lawmakers seeking to codify or enshrine the fairness doctrine into law.

Lawmakers opposed to the doctrine are rallying around a bill, the Broadcaster Freedom Act, sponsored by former syndicated talk show host and U.S. Rep. Mike Pence.  Senator John McCain also sponsored such legislation in 2007.