Does the Federal Communications Commission have a “speech czar”? That was the question before Julius Genachowski yesterday, as he testified for the first time before Congress as FCC chairman. At issue was the appointment of ex-journalist Mark Lloyd to be the agency’s “chief diversity officer,” a position quickly dubbed “the diversity czar,” or the “speech czar.” For weeks now, Lloyd has been a cause celebre on conservative talk radio and other media, where he has been portrayed as yet another in a long line of powerful and unaccountable Obama policy czars and – in light of his support of government regulation of TV and radio content – a threat to free speech.
On the first point the critics are clearly wrong. Lloyd was never a “czar” of anything. That regal title – and its connotations of unlimited influence — seems to have been entirely invented by overactive imaginations in the media. Lloyd’s actual position in the FCC bureaucracy is much more prosaic — “associate general counsel.” He serves in that position along with three other associate general counsel, and three deputy general counsels. His role as “chief diversity officer” is a little less clear. It’s a new position for the FCC, but in the private sector it is an increasingly common one, essentially coordinating internal workplace initiatives, with no specific role in media content issues.
Nevertheless, Lloyd has written extensively in favor of regulation of media. Perhaps most notably, in 2007, he co-authored a piece on the “Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio,” arguing that talk radio is disproportionately conservative in tone, and suggesting steps government could take to “address the imbalance.” Among them: stricter requirements that radio stations address the “needs and interests” of their communities,” and show they are operating in the “public interest.” And if they don’t? They would pay fines, which would be used to fund public broadcasting (discussed here). In practice, this would likely amount to a tax on conservative speech.
The paper stopped short of endorsing a return to the FCC’s old Fairness Doctrine, but not because Fairness Doctrine violated the principles of free speech, but because it was not “effective.” But the steps recommended in the study are explicitly intended to reach the same end by other means. And that end – changing the content of debate in media through government action – is offensive to First Amendment values.
This wouldn’t be much of a concern if these ideas were as out of touch and out of the mainstream as Lloyd’s critics say. (Especially since Genachowski testified that Lloyd won’t be involved in broadcast license issues).
But the real problem is not that Lloyd’s views are extraordinary. It is that they are far too ordinary in some political circles. The 2007 talk radio report, for instance, was not a random screed – in fact it had seven authors and was jointly published by the Center for American Progress and the advocacy group Free Press. The fact is that there is significant political support to control the content of speech, especially conservative speech.
For his part, Genachowski asserted to Congress that he planned no such action, stating his opposition to the Fairness Doctrine by the front door or the back. “I believe deeply in the First Amendment, he added, “and oppose any effort to censor or impose speech on the basis of political viewpoint or opinion.”
That’s good news. But it would be more reassuring if he specifically rejected the ideas in the Lloyd paper. And if other policymakers – some of which are on record as supporting the Fairness Doctrine itself – did so too.
No, there is no “speech czar” at the FCC. But that doesn’t mean there is no threat to speech, or reason for concern.