Are We Losing Free Speech Protections?

A commenter on the NBC must stop running Fred Thompson Law & Order thread writes,

And they must also cease broadcasting any movies where Fred was an actor, such as The Hunt For Red October where he was a carrier admiral.

Because we don't have freedom of speech in America any more.

The first paragraph is right, but the second one misses the boat. Remember that radio and television broadcasting was heavily regulated in the U.S. -- considerably more heavily than it is today -- nearly from its birth. The "equal opportunities" rule is quite old. Its exceptions for news are actually a Congressional liberalization of the rule following an FCC decision in the late 1950s that applied the rule even to certain news coverage of candidates. The Fairness Doctrine, in various of its guises, was around for decades until it was repealed by the FCC in the late 1980s.

The underlying ideology behind all these restrictions, which is chiefly that the communications spectrum is scarce public property that is held more or less as a public trust by the licensees, and that the licensees must therefore be subjected to various restrictions and access mandates -- even when those mandates deter the licensees from carrying certain speech -- has thus been around as long as broadcasting has been. In some measure, recent decades have seen something of a retreat from the high-water mark of such restrictions.

Nor can one say that somehow free speech protection was pure until the 1920s or 1930s in the non-broadcasting media, and the broadcasting restrictions were a retrenchment from traditional protection. Before the 1920s and 1930s, courts upheld various restrictions on advocacy of illegal conduct, broad libel rules that had the effect of deterring not just falsehood but opinion and true statements, obscenity laws that went far beyond hard-core porn, restrictions (often enforced by judges using criminal contempt power) on coverage of trials and criticism of judges, and a wide range of other restrictions. And movies essentially lacked any First Amendment protection from the 1910s to the 1950s.

So one can certainly argue against restrictions on broadcasters; I sympathize with these arguments, and there's some reason to think that the Court would, too, if such a case came before it. But there's no justification for casting this as some sort of recent loss of traditionally recognized free speech protections. Where it comes to broadcasting, the general trend has been towards more protection of broadcaster rights (especially with the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine, though with a bit of recent retrenchment on vulgarity and nudity), not less.