House will vote on bill to defend preachers' use of reserved channels

Adapted from an article published in Current, May 22, 2000

By Stephanie Lash

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on legislation that could force the FCC to open noncommercial educational broadcast licenses to religious broadcasters without even a formal requirement that their programming be educational.

The House Commerce Committee passed H.R. 4021, the Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act, on a party-line vote last week. Pubcasters, including America's Public Television Stations, have begun to oppose the legislation that would forbid the FCC to require stations with noncommercial educational licenses to air certain amounts of educational, cultural or instructional programming.

The bill, substantially rewritten by House telecom subcommittee chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.), deems that nonprofit organizations are eligible to hold the licenses if the station broadcasts material that the organization deems to serve an "educational, instructional, cultural or religious purpose." The legislation dictates that because religious programming "contributes to serving the educational and cultural needs of the public," it should be treated on par with educational progamming by the FCC. Opponents, including ranking minority member Ed Markey (D-Mass.), say this language will put the FCC in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between two religions if multiple faiths are vying for a license.

"Now, the FCC decides which (applicant's programming) is more educational," Markey said. "Under this law, the FCC would have to decide which religion is more religious."

The new version of the bill does address public television's concerns by noting that stations with the licenses must abide by the Children's Television Act of 1990 and FCC rules that prohibit advertising. An amendment offered by Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) also calls for audits of stations to ensure their compliance in protecting donor privacy, including not sharing their lists with political parties and offering donors the right to "opt-out" of sharing agreements.

In the subcommittee markup, Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) had planned to offer an amendment that would have loosened underwriting rules for pubcasting stations, saying that they should be allowed to broadcast of logos and slogans that include "calls to action" and comparative phrases. After Tauzin questioned the pertinence of the amendment to the legislation, Largent withdrew the motion. Largent chief of staff Bob Bolster said that he had received a "verbal commitment" from the subcommittee chair that the amendment could be included in CPB reauthorization legislation to be discussed and introduced "in the near future."

CIPB's model letter opposing the bills

Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting laid out its objection to the bills in a model letter for supporters to send to their members of Congress and to the President.

Dear (Sen./Rep./Pres.):

I strongly urge you to oppose House Resolution 4201 and Senate Bill 2215. If these bills become laws, they will strip all educational requirements from broadcast licenses reserved for the purpose of providing educational programming for the entire community. In due time, this will bring an end to public broadcasting as we know it.

Legal experts warn that the bills, among other things, repeal the public's right to participate in license approval proceedings and the FCC's right to review programming to ensure that a license is being used to serve the public interest. Any group claiming to be a non-profit, regardless of purpose, would be allowed to acquire such licenses, opening the door to hate groups and commercial fronts. The bills also guarantee religious broadcasters a government reserved license without program review, undermining the Constitutional separation of church and state.

The House Bill H.R. 4201 goes even further by denying "reasonable access" to political candidates to noncommercial stations. This would allow for exclusive control of the public airwaves by political partisans.

I oppose these dangerous bills and urge you to do the same now.

The Coalition to Defend Educational Broadcasting, including groups such as Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB), People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Georgetown University Law Center Institute for Public Representation, has organized to protest the legislation. The group has said that because the bill would allow religious entities' ability to broadcast on the reserved noncommercial educational spectrum, it would violate the First Amendment.

CIPB, a new Washington-based citizen lobby that opposes corporate influence on public broadcasting, urged its supporters to oppose the legislation (see box at right).



To Current's home page

Earlier news: FCC members, religious broadcasters testify in House hearing, April 2000.

Text of religious broadcasting bills.

Outside link: House telecommunications subcommittee web site.



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