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Committed to the First Amendment 5/27/2001 08:00:00 PM Eastern

First principles

Neither error nor defamation nor the fruits of an illegal wiretap can stay the electronic courier from its appointed rounds of publishing information of public importance. Read on.

The press won a big First Amendment case in the Supreme Court last week. At issue was whether a Pennsylvania radio show host could be sued under federal and state wiretapping laws for airing the tape of a cell phone conversation, illegally obtained by a third party. On the tape, a teachers' union president suggests there could be violence if the school board does not meet the union's demands in collective-bargaining negotiations.

In the landmark libel case of Times vs. Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that "neither factual error nor defamatory content, nor a combination of the two, sufficed to remove the First Amendment shield from criticism of official conduct." In creating another landmark last week, the high court said, "Parallel reasoning requires the conclusion that a stranger's illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern." That means that someone else's illegal conduct does not poison the information, if the information is in the public interest. It also means that the media are not liable when they publish or broadcast such material, even if they know or could be expected to know that it was obtained illegally.

While the court recognized a strong right to privacy, it said such a right was outweighed by the importance of not suppressing speech. The decision reinforces the importance of a free press, but it also reminds us of the responsibility attendant upon holding such power.

Hold on to your hats

Speaking of holding power, Sen. James Jeffords' abandonment of the GOP last week will put the reins of the Senate Commerce Committee back into the hands of Fritz Hollings. That news is a mixed bag for broadcasters. The courtly Hollings is from the old school of strict-but-protective legislating, which could play to the advantage of some in the industry. Hollings has not been eager to help big broadcasters get bigger by raising ownership caps or allowing newspaper/broadcast crossownership—he once called them "well-considered, effective rules." But his version of the Communications Act rewrite introduced in 1994 would have put all those rules on the table for review. He also clearly recognizes the power and importance of broadcasting and might be more inclined to cut broadcasters some slack on the transition to digital. Where we are most worried is in the area of content. While Hollings has professed a respect for free speech rights, he was one of the most active would-be content regulators in his days as Commerce Chairman. Over the years, he has put his imprimatur on the V-chip, TV-violence bans, and a government-funded advertiser hit list. We'll keep you posted.

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