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Committed To The First Amendment
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Hits Just Keep On Coming

The FCC is getting hammered a lot these days. Last week it was the commission's classification of cable-modem service as an information service rather than a telecommunications offering—or some hybrid—that got tossed out by an appeals court. And cable companies will now get a taste of the uncertainty broadcast companies have been confronting thanks to the undoing of the FCC's media-ownership revisions.

Faced with conflicting earlier court opinions, the FCC had sought comment, weighed it, then decided modem service was an interstate information service that was not subject to open- access rules. Given that the definition of information service in the Communications Act is "the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing or making available information via telecommunications," that would seem to be a reasonable conclusion. We think the court should have given the commission deference on the decision, rather than throw it out because it didn't square with the same court's earlier ruling that the service was both fish and fowl. The FCC is the expert agency in these matters, with all due deference to the Ninth Circuit. As the judges themselves pointed out, Congress in the 1996 Act sought to spur the development of computer services by creating as much competition as possible, with as few regulatory impediments as possible. That included not subjecting information services to the same kind of common-carrier obligations as telecommunications services. Since Congress is the FCC's boss, the commission took it at its word. The court has taken a sledgehammer to that deregulatory framework, and it will now be up to Congress or the Supreme Court to pick up the pieces.

The FCC plans to appeal, and the NCTA says it believes last week's ruling will not stand. We hope so, but, in the meantime, it creates the kind of regulatory uncertainty that puts the breaks on a crucial business. Join the club.

Ballot Initiative

Scripps' TV stations once again will give airtime to candidates in the run-up to elections, in this case the 2004 race. The time will take many forms, including debates, town meetings, PSAs, news stories and five minutes a night prior to general elections, plus whatever seems appropriate before primaries.

We applaud the company's continuing commitment to political speech—it did the same for the 2000 and 2002 elections—as we do efforts by numerous other broadcasters. We don't agree with government-mandated time quotas, particularly insofar as they run afoul of the First Amendment, but voluntary steps to increase the political dialogue and engage more voters and potential voters is a worthwhile goal of every broadcaster. For their part, however, candidates cannot let offers of debate time from stations go wanting, as they have in the past.

"It is our responsibility as journalists and broadcasters to promote public discourse and a strong democracy," said John Lansing, senior vice president of TV for Scripps, in announcing the new effort. That is a campaign slogan we can heartily endorse.

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