FREEDOM FOR BROADCASTING
Support is growing among the public, broadcasters, and Congress to end government control of broadcast content. The Senate recently held four days of hearings on Sen. William Proxmire's bill to repeal the 26-year old Fairness Doctrine which requires broadcasters to present "all sides" of controversial public issues. At the hearings Proxmire pointed out that the argument that government regulation is necessary because of the limited number of broadcasting outlets has been outmoded by technology—e.g., 3100 cable TV systems provide large numbers of channels to eight million subscribers, and the number served keeps growing. Proxmire also pointed out that unregulated newspapers today provide far more diversity of views (via columnists and letters) than regulated broadcasters.
Broadcasters at the hearings cited various examples of ways in which the Fairness Doctrine had been used for political purposes by three recent administrations (Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). CBS president Arthur Taylor labeled the Doctrine "a potentially destructive tool," and urged a year's suspension as a test. NBC chairman Julian Goodman noted, "I'm all for fairness; it's government regulation of it that I oppose." In a recent California speech Thomas Sarnoff, an NBC vice-president, stated that the Fairness Doctrine substitutes the judgments of bureaucrats, who grant and withhold broadcast licenses, for those of professional newspeople. He also pointed out that the Doctrine, by giving opposing groups a legal right to charge "unfairness" in court, can lead to costly court battles which discourage broadcasters from airing controversy in the first place—possibly one reason why most TV is so bland. Sarnoff also attacked the government's requirements for "counter-commercials" and its ban on broadcast cigarette commercials as a discriminatory attack on the broadcast industry.
Despite the Proxmire bill, the new outspokenness of broadcasting officials, and a recent Roper poll showing that 80 percent of the public believes government should have no control over TV news programs, the FCC and its political backers (e.g. Sen. John Pastore) are determined to retain their life and death power over broadcasting.
• "TV's Fair Game," Newsweek, May 12, 1975, p. 110.
• "TV Controls Called Threat to Journalism," Santa Barbara News Press, May 9, 1975.
VICTIMLESS CRIME PROGRESS
Recent months have seen progress in California in getting the government out of people's private lives. In the area of consensual sexual activity, the California legislature recently passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill removing criminal penalties for all private sexual behavior between consenting adults. The new law thus will end much harassment of homosexuals and will remove the threat of selective enforcement of previous laws against ordinary heterosexual conduct (e.g. oral copulation). Whether the new law decriminalizes prostitution is unclear; a case can be made that the sexual transaction itself is now legal, while the remaining charge of "solicitation" might be fought on grounds of interference with free speech.
In Alameda County (Oakland), enforcement of the law against prostitution was halted in April by a Superior Court injunction. Last February Judge Spurgeon Avakian had ruled that enforcement of the law as then carried out (by plainclothesmen posing as customers) discriminated against women, whereupon Oakland police began using plainclothes female officers to trap male customers. But on April 1 the judge enjoined the police from "engaging in any conversational activity, device or scheme which encourages or aids in the commission of an offense of solicitation…" As a result, most enforcement activity has come to a halt, and Oakland prostitutes are largely free to ply their trade.
Another approach to the victimless crime laws is contained in a bill pending in the California legislature. Assemblyman Ken Mead's AB 642 would permit a person charged with prostitution, marijuana possession, or other victimless crime to plead innocent of criminal wrongdoing on grounds that the act neither threatened nor injured another person. Thus, the burden of proof would initially be on the prosecution to produce evidence of injury or threatened injury. This appears to be a useful interim approach, while victimless crime laws remain on the books. In this regard, the ACLU's Deborah Hinkel points out that much of the opposition to prostitution is essentially esthetic. Opponents are "really saying that they see women—usually black women—in their short skirts engaging in conversation with white men on the street. And that's all they see. They're really offended. But in no way does this really harm them. It's just esthetically unpleasing to them." And for this esthetic displeasure, all of us must pay the price of millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while real crime continues to increase.
• "Victimless Crimes," ACLU Open Forum, April 1975.
• "Oakland Prostitutes Busy as City Appeals Ruling," Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1975.
One of economist Frederick Bastiat's most important insights was to point out the difference between what is seen and what is not seen in evaluating government policies. The current controversy over whether to decontrol natural gas prices provides a good illustration. Opponents of decontrol, such as Ralph Nader, Jack Anderson, and the Consumer Federation of America, focus on what is seen—the short-run effect of higher gas prices for consumers. What they evade or ignore is the growing shortage of natural gas caused by price controls, a shortage that will eventually force millions of consumers to switch to much higher-priced oil or electricity, and pay several thousand dollars in conversion costs.
It is just such considerations that are causing many in Congress, such as Sen. John Tunney, to favor complete decontrol. Tunney recently opposed a compromise plan approved by the Senate Commerce Committee to decontrol only independent gas producers, arguing that only the major firms have the financial means to expand exploration rapidly enough to curtail shortages; Tunney therefore favors deregulation of all producers. (The partial decontrol bill would allow all but the 23 largest firms to raise the price of new domestic natural gas in interstate commerce from the present 51¢ per thousand cu. ft. to as much as $2.00, approximately the current free market price in the unregulated intrastate market.)
The interstate pipeline industry has now joined the ranks of those urging complete gas price deregulation. Although the industry's growth in the 1950's and 1960's was partly the result of Federal Power Commission price controls (which, by depressing natural gas prices, greatly expanded the market for the pipeline companies), the industry has had to cope with rapidly increasing curtailments of supply since 1970; in 1973 these pipelines were able to purchase only three percent of the 8.6 billion cu. ft. of new onshore gas available (vs. 62 percent of the 12.6 billion cu. ft. available in 1966). The number of curtailments has doubled in each of the past two years. Facts such as this have led the FPC to emerge as one of the strongest advocates of deregulation, thereby "chipping away at its own existence, for its primary function is to administer controls on the wellhead price of gas destined for interstate pipelines."
While the battle to deregulate gas prices continues, a similar fight to decontrol the price of "old oil"—oil from domestic wells that were in production prior to the 1973 price controls—continues. (Old oil now constitutes 41 percent of U.S. consumption, and is priced at $5.25 per barrel, vs. $12.40 for new oil and imports.) In April the Senate voted to increase the old oil ceiling price to $7.50 for that portion of production resulting from added investment in secondary or tertiary oil-recovery methods—the kinds of investment which are uneconomical at the controlled price. Efforts by Sens. Mike Gravel and Paul Fannin to remove the $5.25 ceiling altogether were defeated. The house Commerce Subcommittee in May approved a decontrol formula for old oil that would eliminate some price controls on passage of a windfall profits tax, rapidly phase out the remaining controls, and allow producers to avoid the new profits tax by reinvesting their increased earnings. At press time, the prospects for old oil decontrol were unclear.
• "End to Some Gas Controls Voted," Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1975.
• "Tunney Defends Stand on Natural Gas," Ibid., May 17, 1975.
• "A Furious Push to Deregulate Gas," Business Week, May 19, 1975, p. 91.
• "The Reluctant Regulators," Ibid., p. 94.
• "Senate Votes to Lift Price Ceiling on Some 'Old Oil'," Washington Post, April 10, 1975.
• "U.S. Oil Price Decontrol Approved by House Panel," Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1975.
Elections. Nevada is the first state to adopt a provision for "none of the above" as an alternative to the candidates listed on the ballot. A bill by Assemblyman Don Mello, signed into law by Gov. Mike O'Callaghan, would put the "no confidence" provision on the ballot in time for the 1976 elections. (Source: " 'No Confidence' Ballot OK'd," UPI (Carson City), May 7, 1975)
Advertising. California's law prohibiting advertising of prescription drug prices has been declared unconstitutional by a three-judge Federal court. The court held that the law violated the right of free speech, because it "significantly and impermissibly restricts the distribution of the information plaintiffs seek." The court also pointed out that the overturned law had, in effect, banned discounting of prescription drugs, by making it nearly impossible for consumers to learn of such practices. Consumer advocates estimate that price competition will probably lead to net savings of 10 percent of the $430 million that Californians spend each year on prescriptions. The suit challenging the law was supported by a number of organizations, including the California Newspaper Publishers Association. (Source: "Advertising Ban on Prescription Drugs Nullified," Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1975.)
Ocean Freedom. The efforts of the U.N. to regulate seabed mining, fishing, and other subjects traditionally handled within the framework of freedom of the seas have gone down to failure again. The most recent session of the U.N. Law of the Sea Conference, this time in Geneva, has ended without accomplishing anything of substance, much like its predecessor in Caracas in 1974. The only result of the conference was an agreement to make yet another try, next year in New York. (Source: "Conference on Sea Law Sinks Again," Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1975)
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Trends".