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After Trump tweets threat to free press, FCC’s GOP commissioners remain silent

Tom Wheeler

Nothing is supposed to surprise us in Washington these days. So, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised when President Trump tweeted that the broadcast licenses of NBC “must be challenged, and if appropriate, revoked” because he doesn’t like the network’s reporting.

What is surprising is that the Trump-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as well as two Republican commissioners, have been totally silent—for two days!

There is nothing nuanced here. The suggestion that the government, through its broadcast regulator, should act to suppress free speech and freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment shows a lack of respect for basic constitutional principles. The press can be uncomfortable (believe me, I know), but the First Amendment requirements that government officials respect press freedom whether they like the coverage or not. That’s not news, that’s the Constitution.

The president may decide he can walk away from his oath of office, but the FCC commissioners have also sworn to uphold the Constitution. Despite this, they are AWOL. Why the silence from the Republicans at the FCC? The two Democratic commissioners, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, immediately spoke up on this constitutional affront.

But where are the Republicans? Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Brendan Carr were both appointed by Donald Trump, and Commissioner Mike O’Rielly is a former Republican congressional staffer who prides himself on strict adherence to the law. Normally, they will tweet at the drop of a hat. Have they lost their Twitter handles?

Let’s be specific here: Were the FCC to act as the president suggests, the result would not only be an assault on the Constitution, but also a profound embarrassment to the agency. It would last about as long as it took for a court appeal to be filed. It’s already an embarrassment that the FCC seems incapable of speaking truth when it may be contrary to a presidential tweet.

A basic statement from the leadership of the FCC would be sufficient. It’s not as if they haven’t been asked. Sen. Ed Markey, Reps. Frank Pallone and Mike Doyle, and others wrote the FCC immediately after the president’s remarks. But the only response from the agency’s GOP members has been silence. Trade publication TR Daily reported this morning that “FCC spokespersons did not respond today or yesterday” to repeated requests for comment. Two days of no comment?! How can that possibly be?

A simple “The FCC respects the Constitution and the First Amendment” would suffice. There’s no need for a lengthy legal treatise.

By their silence, the Republicans at the FCC have joined in the president’s strategy to get into the head of every television station news editor and station manager in the country. If, because the FCC failed to make clear that the government can’t bully them, even one broadcaster thinks twice about a story and its effect on their license, then the Constitution has been abridged and the FCC is complicit.

By their inaction, the Republican FCC commissioners have already violated their oath to uphold the Constitution. That sacred document is clear: The government is not to suppress ideas and opinion. There is no ambiguity in the First Amendment.

The commissioners owe it to the American public and the Constitution they swore to uphold to issue an immediate and clear statement that speech is a protected right, and that it has no role in the matter of broadcast licenses. While they’re at it, they should also issue an apology to the citizens of the United States that they took over two days to get around to telling America the truth.

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