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The proposal may seem unconstitutional, but Congress has been controlling air-wave speech with Supreme Court approval since the Federal Radio Act of 1927. Throughout our history, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that political speech can be controlled as long as all political speech is controlled. “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech” has never been held to be absolute. Even the Constitution defines libel, an obvious violation of the right to free speech.
Called “time, place and manner” restrictions, the Court’s existing limits on political speech indicate a ban on audio and video spots would be upheld. Today, for example, we have “free speech zones” which keep demonstrators away from party conventions; “vote for X” signs are banned from public transit; and anti-abortion protestors are forced to stay specific distances from clinics.
If the First Amendment were absolute, none of these cases would stand up in court.
The issues in front of America are complex, probably too complex for a 90-minute film like the anti-Hillary Rodham Clinton product behind the Citizens decision, but certainly too complex for 30 seconds. The more we turn issues into bumper stickers, the less we can deal with them.
I’m not suggesting that Congress ban all political speech from broadcast and cable – I’m suggesting that there be a time requirement of at least 30 minutes. Political speech on television must be long enough to address issues, not personalities. Parties, corporations, unions, and PACs could still spend lavishly, but in lengths long enough to speak with rational – rather than manipulative – voices. With a ban on 30 to 60-second political ads, the need for political money would plummet.
Why? Knowing that multiple showings of an hour film would get zapped by TV clickers, politicians and their backers would reconsider their approach, while today campaign operatives try to get 30-second spots in front of independent voters at least 12 times.
Today, about three quarters of political spending goes to broadcast spots.
Banning all broadcast political spots would force politicians and their supporters back to the First Amendment’s true purpose – unfettered political discourse, not unfettered 30-second slander.
Newspapers, magazines, Internet analysis, and true broadcast news shows – whose reporters attempt objectivity – would regain audience.
For context, voters would turn to long broadcasts, both pro and con, real analysis online, and even the morning paper to discover the social, political, historical, and economic background to policies and proposals.
The basis of America’s First Amendment is that truth will prevail in a free marketplace of ideas. Banning tiny bits of political time from television and radio keeps the unbridled marketplace, while still allowing anyone to say anything he, she – or it – wants.
A ban on spots, most importantly, would return this nation to those crucial concepts of “ideas” and “truth.”
Randy Salzman is a former media law and journalism professor who writes, primarily, about transportation demand management and the American political system from Charlottesville, Va.