Policy

Media Reformers Push FCC to Track Financial Backers of Political Speech

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Follow the money!

Today in dubious media reform proposals: Media-centric consumer advocacy group calls for greater FCC involvement in regulating political speech:

The Media Access Project, which advocates on behalf of consumers in telecommunications issues, argues that the FCC has interpreted federal law too narrowly when it comes to disclosures for political ads.

Under current rules, some of which date back to the 1940s, the FCC requires disclosure only for the group claiming responsibility for the ad, no matter how it paid for it.

But Andrew Schwartzman, the media project's senior vice president and policy director, says the Communications Act of 1934 and subsequent legislation anticipates a much broader standard: disclosure of those actually paying for the message.

Schwartzman's petition asks the FCC to revise its rules to require groups to disclose financial backers who contribute more than 10 percent of their budgets as part of public documents filed with broadcast stations. It would also require on-air disclosures for donors who provide more than 25 percent of a television commercial's budget.

As Adam Thierer of The Mercatus Center notes, the FCC already plays federal censor. Do we also want it hovering over the shoulders of groups making political arguments? The agency would be simultaneously tracking financial backers and making judgments about what constitutes acceptable speech—a combination with no small potential to chill political speech.

When attempting to nourish a healthy and productive public debate, that's exactly what we don't want. As with so many proposed campaign finance disclosure rules, one of the things this proposal misses is the straightforward value of allowing anonymous speech—which is most important to preserve and protect in the political sphere. Anonymous speech provides a way to avoid politically driven blowback—and allows individuals to inject ideas into political debates with more hope that those ideas will be judged on their merits rather than on some preexisting biases toward the person behind the ideas.

Watch Reason.tv on the surprisingly strong and historic case for anonymous speech.