It was the decision that launched a thousand lips.
In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission stopped requiring broadcasters to air contrasting views on controversial issues, a policy known as the Fairness Doctrine. The move is widely credited with triggering the explosive growth of political talk radio.
Now, after conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage helped torpedo a major immigration bill, some in Congress have suggested reinstating the Fairness Doctrine to balance out those powerful syndicated voices.
That has unleashed an armada of opposition on the airwaves, Internet blogs and in Washington, where broadcasters have joined with Republicans to fight what they call an attempt to zip their lips.
Opponents of the Fairness Doctrine said it would make station owners so fearful of balancing viewpoints that they’d simply avoid airing controversial topics -- the “chilling effect” on debate that the FCC cited in repealing the rule two decades ago.
“Free speech must be just that -- free from government influence, interference and censorship,” David K. Rehr, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, wrote to lawmakers.
There’s little chance the fairness doctrine will return in the near future, as FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin publicly opposes it and the White House wrote to broadcasters last week assuring them that Bush would veto any legislation reinstating it. But the issue has renewed debate about how far the government should go in regulating the public airwaves.
Some Democrats say conservative-dominated talk radio enables Republicans to mislead the public on important issues such as the Senate immigration reform bill.