There is a new twist on the issue of broadcasters' role in real-life violence: Hate crimes.
The heads of the House committee and subcommittee overseeing communications issues, respectively, have asked the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) to study the use of "telecommunications to commit hate crimes."
While NTIA, which is the Bush administration's telecommunications policy advisory arm, already produced a study on the topic under the first president Bush back in 1992, Reps. John Dingell and Ed Markey urged it to update the study given the rise in the Internet since them. But, according to a release from the commitee issued Monday, they also said they are also "particularly" interested in studying "uses by broadcast facilites licensed on behalf of the public by the FCC, and whether such uses convey messages of bigotry or hatred, creating a climate of fear and inciting individuals to commit hate crimes."
A committee source would not say what had engendered that particular concern about broadcasters' conveying "messages of bigotry and hatred," adding that it was a general query rather than targeted at any one group. But some Democrats and media activist groups have been highly critical of conservative talk radio, labeling it hate speech.
A new hate crimes bill passed the House last month that would allow law enforcement to prosecute speech that led directly to bodily injury. Some religious broadcasters are concerned the law, if passed, could prevent ministers from speaking out against homosexuality from the broadcast pulpit. The American Civil Liberties Union supported the bill, the first hate crimes bill it has been able to give its seal of approval, pointing out that the legislation protected speech and association "unless it specifically relates to a violent crime."
The full text of the letter follows:
The Honorable John M.R. Kneuer
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce
Dear Mr. Kneuer:
The Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet are interested in the role of telecommunications in the dissemination of speech that may encourage or advocate hate crimes. In particular, the Committee urges the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to conduct a study and issue a report on this matter.
The Committee successfully included a provision as part of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Organization Act (the NTIAO Act), signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 that directed NTIA to conduct a similar study. This statutory directive, found in Section 155 of the NTIAO Act, required NTIA to "prepare a report on the role of telecommunications in crimes of hate and violent acts against ethnic, religious, and racial minorities." The NTIA completed this report and submitted it to Congress in December 1993.
Technology has changed dramatically since the 1993 report, which was completed when online information services and the Internet were in their nascent stage of popular adoption. The Committee believes an updated report, to reflect changes in telecommunications technologies as well as their impact on mass media marketplace participants, would illuminate important issues for public discussion.
The Committee does not wish to erode First Amendment protections or to infringe upon the fundamental liberty of any citizen. Rather, we seek information about the current uses of telecommunications media, particularly uses by broadcast facilities licensed on behalf of the public by the Federal Communications Commission, and whether such uses convey messages of bigotry or hatred, creating a climate of fear and inciting individuals to commit hate crimes.
The Committee trusts that you agree such issues merit NTIA's attention, especially because 15 years have elapsed since the previous report was conducted. Thank you in advance for your time and attention to this matter. If you should have any questions, please contact us or have your staff contact Colin Crowell or Mark Seifert with the Committee staff at (202) 226-2424.
John D. Dingell
Edward J. Markey
Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.