In an earlier post I profiled Robert Corn-Revere’s WSJ op-ed entitled “Free-Speech Foes Call an Audible — Bringing the FCC into the ‘Redskins’ debate is an invitation for First Amendment mischief.” The op-ed was written in critical response to a petition filed by George Washington Law Professor John Banzhaf to the Federal Communications Commission concerning the use of the Washington Redskins’ name on broadcast airwaves. At the end of my blog profile I invited Professor Banzhaf to respond, which he has now done. His response is set out below.
Robert Corn-Revere apparently objects that I have asked the FCC not to renew the broadcast license of a station that repeatedly and unnecessarily broadcasts a word which has been found in several legal proceedings to be a racial slur even when applied to an NFL team – “R*dskins,” the so-called R-word, equivalent to the N-word so hateful to African Americans, and never used on the air – and is even so defined in most dictionaries. But, in an apparent attempt to prove some point, he describes at length a major life-saving step I persuaded the FCC to take, and (perhaps deliberately) overlooks several obvious points.
In 1966 I persuaded the FCC with one filing (far shorter than the one now in question, and one which many likewise called “frivolous” at the time) to apply a largely unknown and moribund principle – the “Fairness Doctrine” — to cigarette advertising. The result was that anti-smoking messages were broadcast on radio and TV for the first time — hundreds of millions of (1968) dollars worth. This caused the country’s first major drop in cigarette consumption; estimated by itself to have saved millions of lives. It also led directly to a ban on cigarettes commercials; something which saved even more lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs. [See Banzhaf, et al. v. Federal Communications Commission, et al. (D.C. Cir., 1968, per Bazelon, C.J.)]
Those who seek to hide behind the First Amendment argued then, as Corn-Revere does now, that both moves — first forcing stations to broadcast statements against smoking, and then banning them from running cigarette commercials — violated Free Speech, but I successfully defended both decisions in court. Thus, I was able to persuade the FCC to make one of its most important and significant decisions ever — one which saved millions of lives and got rid of cigarette commercials — yet Corn-Revere criticizes the fact that the FCC granted my request, apparently because the Fairness Doctrine was later abandoned. Yet this makes as much sense as criticizing the Special Prosecutor legislation (which I also had a hand in bringing into effect) — which helped save the country from a major constitutional crisis during Watergate — because it likewise was eventually allowed to expire.
He also fails to mention another FCC filing of mine that forced the major TV stations in DC — and eventually around the country – to begin featuring African Americans as reporters and in other significant on-air positions. That one, like the one he now criticizes and seeks to belittle, was likewise based on allegations of racism. Corn-Revere also fails to note how many of my other agency petitions, likewise derided as “frivolous” and/or publicity stunts at the time, were granted and were successful: in getting women admitted, for the first time, to the Cosmos Club and to formerly all-male state-supported military academies; in restricting and ultimately banning smoking on airplanes; in changing labels on foods, birth control pills and elsewhere; in striking down various forms of sex-based price discrimination, etc.
Although Corn-Revere opines (citing no authority) that my petition has no legal basis, three former FCC commissioners (including a former Chairman), as well as almost a dozen broadcasting law superstars, have publicly stated that such broadcasts are probably illegal under current law. The current FCC Chairman has stated that my petition will be taken seriously and evaluated on its merits, something he would not have said if it were obviously “a publicity stunt, not a serious legal argument.” And other broadcast law attorneys who oppose the petition have been forced to admit that it will at the very least likely hold up the license renewals of the stations for a considerable period of time, impacting their credit ratings, their ability to sell or transfer assets, etc.
Given that at least one TV station lost its license based upon allegations of racism, and that the FCC previously ruled that racial slurs constituted “profanity” (which cannot be broadcast during prime time), the tremendous value of a station’s broadcast license, and my track record in persuading the FCC and many other agencies to take unprecedented steps in response to imaginative petitions many said had no chance of success, given all that the question is: Should stations ignore this new movement and continue to bet the farm (their FCC licenses), simply to be able to say “R*dskins” rather than “DC” or “Washington” when providing the sports scores or otherwise talking about this NFL team?