The Fairness Doctrine


The fairness doctrine was a law that required radio broadcasters to cover controversial topics and to present both sides of those topics. The philosophy behind the law was that the spectrum of radio frequencies was limited and that no company or viewpoint should have the right to monopolize the entire radio spectrum. The supreme court did rule in favor of this rule in radio - where the spectrum is limited by physics. However, the supreme court has also ruled that the law does not apply where competition is limited, such as in the newspaper business.

There have been no votes of significance on the fairness doctrine and not every representative or candidate addresses the issue. However, there has been legislation proposed to prevent the rule from being re-enforced. If a representative has co-sponsored that legislation, it will appear in their profile.




Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2009 Official Summary Bill Text
Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2011 Official Summary Bill Text


FCC Regulation

The fairness doctrine was not a law, but was rather a set of principles that the FCC upheld after a 1949 commission report. The regulations required that public issues be presented by broadcasters and that each side of those issues be given fair coverage. 

In 1974, the Federal Communications Commission asserted that the United States Congress had delegated it the power to mandate a system of "access, either free or paid, for person or groups wishing to express a viewpoint on a controversial public issue..." but that it had not yet exercised that power because licensed broadcasters had "voluntarily" complied with the "spirit" of the doctrine. It warned that:

Should future experience indicate that the doctrine [of 'voluntary compliance'] is inadequate, either in its expectations or in its results, the Commission will have the opportunity—and the responsibility—for such further reassessment and action as would be mandated. (text taken from wikipedia)

The FCC regulations were put to the test in three lawsuits:

  • Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969)
  • Miami Herald Publishing Co. V. Tornillo (1974)
  • FCC v. League of Women Voters of California, 468 U.S. 364 (1984)


Red Lion Broadcasting Co vs FCC

In 1969's Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, journalist Fred Cook sued a Pennsylvania Christian Crusade radio program after a radio host attacked him on air. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court upheld Cook's right to an on-air response under the Fairness Doctrine, arguing that nothing in the First Amendment gives a broadcast license holder the exclusive right to the airwaves they operate on.

A license permits broadcasting, but the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a radio frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others.... It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.


Miami Herald Publishing Co. V. Tornillo

In 1974, the supreme court ruled that newspapers — which don't require licenses or airwaves to operate — face theoretically unlimited competition, making the protection of the Fairness Doctrine unneeded. The decision was unanimous.

Government-enforced right of access inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate.


FCC v. League of Women Voters of California

In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not forbid editorials by non-profit stations that received grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (FCC v. League of Women Voters of California, 468 U.S. 364 (1984)). The Court's 5-4 majority decision by William J. Brennan, Jr. stated that while many now considered that expanding sources of communication had made the Fairness Doctrine's limits unnecessary: (text from wiki)

“ We are not prepared, however, to reconsider our longstanding approach without some signal from Congress or the FCC that technological developments have advanced so far that some revision of the system of broadcast regulation may be required. (footnote 11)


Removal of Rules

In President Reagan's second term, the FCC chairman began to repeal facets of the fairness doctrine. He has noted since then that this done with the belief that the rule infringed upon first amendment rights and not the desire to free talk radio from the restrictions of the fairness doctrine. He has noted that many in the Reagan administration believed at the time that if the restrictions were removed, the television networks would attack President Reagan.


Additional Legislation

Each year, there are numerous bills introduced that are not voted on in the House or Senate. These bills may be sponsored by numerous people and a representative's co-sponsorship of that legislation gives insight into that person's viewpoints.

Senate Bills on The Fairness Doctrine
SessionBill NumberCo-SponsorsBill Title
111S 3431Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2009
110S 174835Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2007

House Bills on The Fairness Doctrine
SessionBill NumberCo-SponsorsBill Title
112H R 642114Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2011
111H R 226175Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2009
110H R 2905209Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2007