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Courting free speech

In an example of misguided justice, the Federal Appeals Court in the U.S. began March by overturning F.C.C. restrictions limiting the amount of subscribers one cable operator could have, as well as the amount of outside programming (programming not produced by...
April 1, 2001

In an example of misguided justice, the Federal Appeals Court in the U.S. began March by overturning F.C.C. restrictions limiting the amount of subscribers one cable operator could have, as well as the amount of outside programming (programming not produced by it or affiliated companies) it was required to air. This has to be considered a giant victory for both AT&T and AOL/Time Warner (the two largest cable operators in the U.S.), but it’s the exact opposite for viewers and producers.

The basis of the appeal and subsequent reversal, was that these restrictions violated the First Amendment rights of these companies – their right to free speech. In a New York Times article, Justice Stephen F. Williams was quoted as saying: ‘The horizontal limit interferes with [the] petitioners’ speech rights by restricting the number of viewers to whom they can speak.’

Yes, Mister Justice, that’s true. That was the whole bloody point of the legislation. It was meant to keep corporations from dominating the airwaves to the exclusion of all other voices. (I won’t even begin a tirade into what I think of the U.S. judicial system extending the rights accorded an individual of a democracy to an international corporation. They should be ashamed of themselves…)

This month, it was announced that Warner Music (part of that giant, AOL/Time Warner) was pulling London-based arts/culture distributor NVC Arts back into the fold, with the requisite lay-offs and loss of identity such a move entails. The arts catalog is being absorbed into the same amorphous mass from which springs Madonna and Alice Cooper, and isn’t likely to be seen in quantity again.

It’s a little reminiscent of a move made a couple of years ago by Disney, when they decided ABC/Kane didn’t need to exist anymore, and made it disappear. It was a decision made soon after ESPN (a part of ABC, which is a part of Disney) picked up National Hockey League rights for $600 million from Fox Sports. Connection or just coincidence?

It’s been repeatedly proven that huge internationals make decisions in a rarified air, abstracted from the markets they touch. They have investors to please and stock prices to prop, and cuts are good for the bottom line. But, cuts aren’t made to sports, or feature films, or drama; they’re made to arts and cultural programming and to science. Multinationals aren’t in the business of serving niches, and they don’t give a damn about anything that doesn’t attract eyeballs by the millions.

And removing restrictions that say these huge companies even have to consider programming produced by outside (read: more expensive) producers creates a system that only serves the needs of the corporations, not the people they administer. It will mean less variety. It will mean less access. It will mean fewer voices are heard.

The keystone of democracy is free speech, not speech filtered through the mandate of a pervasive corporation preoccupied with ratings and profit margin. That isn’t what the U.S. constitution is for. Too bad no one bothered to tell the Appeals Court.

About The Author
Selina Chignall joins the realscreen team as a staff writer. Prior to working with rs, she covered lobbying activity at Hill Times Publishing. She also spent a year covering the Hill as a journalist with iPolitics. Her beat focused on youth, education, democratic reform, innovation and infrastructure. She holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University and a Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto.

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